Doctor sets up his own COVID testing van to serve urban residents

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Dr. Alex Salerno’s on a mission. On Thursday, he set up his COVID test van on Thomas Boulevard between two public housing projects for seniors in the city of Orange. Clients waited outside in socially-distanced chairs for their turn to get throats swabbed and blood drawn in tents outside a $40,000 used van retrofitted by Salerno’s family practice with a sink, fridge, wifi and medical cabinets.

“It was about time, because in these areas, where mostly blacks are, they don’t have any,” said Orange resident Frances.

“Everywhere I went, there was a line. It was, ‘come back the next day; we’ll set you up for an appointment.’ In the meantime, my stress level was rising and I was saying, ‘What can I do,’ you know?” said Jerry Wallace from Montclair.

“This is what we need to do. This is what health care is right now, and if we want to get back to normal we’ve got to get over this,” Salerno said.

Salerno launched the van two weeks ago after patients seeking COVID-19 tests swamped his medical practice in the Essex County area. Both his parents are doctors in Newark and East Orange — a commitment spanning decades. He’s alarmed by the government’s slow response to the pandemic and calls it flat-footed.

“I mean, look where testing is in New Jersey. We’re only doing 7,000 people a day? I mean, this is New Jersey,” he said. “So we have a long way to go. Especially if we want to get back to work, try to resume some type of normalcy.”

State leaders say they’ll be able to do 20,000 tests a day by the end of May, but Salerno isn’t waiting. He mobilized more than 100 staffers and spent $60,000 on protective gear like masks. He bought items on the black market when he couldn’t get it through normal supply chains and also reached out to local authorities.

“We started working with the mayor of Orange, because Orange has a very large senior population,” Salerno said. “We’ve started a dialogue and it kind of just ignited pretty quick. It wasn’t like a lot of analysis paralysis. I mean, they just said, ‘alright.'”

“We have seven senior buildings in a 2.2 square mile area, so it includes a lot of vulnerable people,” Mayor said. “We know that the more we get tested, the more we know, the better we can fight this thing. And so having his van is really something that’s tremendous for our community.”

While walk-ups get tested on the street, Salerno fields four teams of two into the nearby 10-story apartment building for seniors. They push carts with medical gear down the hallways where residents who’ve quarantined for weeks sit waiting. Most are covered by Medicare or Medicaid.

The doctor’s techs collect samples that will yield data and hopefully create a pattern for public health officials.

“Who’s positive, who’s negative, who has antibodies, so they can start also kind of understanding how to safely preparing for the 30,000 to 40,000 citizens that he has in his town when or if this phase 2 happens in the fall,” he said. “It’s not going away. It’s not like, Fourth of July, COVID is over.”

Salerno says COVID-19 has transformed his practice and it’s now 90% of his work. His message to public health officials and the governor: Talk less, test more.