TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. –– Tompkins County residents will still be able to receive free COVID-19 testing for the foreseeable future thanks to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reimbursement of testing expenditures, County Administrator Jason Molino announced last week.

In September, the Tompkins County Legislature had approved $300,000 in total appropriations to ensure that testing would remain free for county residents, an expense that was predicted to last 10 weeks—in other words, until the first week of November. Lower testing participation than anticipated, paired with FEMA reimbursement that should cover 75 percent of testing expenses, has left enough money from the original $300K to continue providing free tests for county residents regardless of qualifications or criteria through the end of the year and beyond.

The county is responsible for covering the cost of people getting tested who do not have a medical reason to receive a test (such as symptoms or potential exposure) or a sponsoring organization that is working on payment with the county. The original appropriation came with a stipulation that non-county residents who also did not have a sponsoring organization, meaning their testing would otherwise have to be covered by Tompkins County, would be required to pay $99.

Molino said the number of tests needed to be covered by the county each week has been lower than previously thought, even with an increase over the last few weeks as COVID-19 cases have begun an autumn rise. Since the beginning of September, there have been an average of 512 tests covered by the county each week (though this number has rose to over 800 during the last two weeks of October), compared to an average of 1,978 total tests each week, meaning the county is responsible for covering about a quarter of all tests. These testing numbers do not represent Cornell University students, who are getting tested as part of the school’s surveillance testing program.

“We are seeing an increase right now over the past several weeks because of the surge across the state and across the country, but even if that sustains for a little bit, we think we have another 15 weeks of testing capacity available from the original appropriation,” Molino said. “We think we’re in a good position, probably, to bring us through January, and probably into February until we have to talk about this again in terms of needing more appropriation.”

COVID testing figures from Sept. 1 until Nov. 1.

Of course, the possibility exists that the legislature will approve further spending in order to keep the free access to testing for county residents when the $300K does run out. According to the numbers presented by Molino to the legislature, the county spends about $80 per test that it is responsible for paying for, 75 percent of which is scheduled to be reimbursed by FEMA.

There continues to be far more non-county residents receiving testing at the Cayuga Health Sampling Site than Tompkins County residents. Since the beginning of September, 17,802 non-county residents have visited the site for testing, compared to 12,625 county residents in the same time frame.

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com