Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a coronavirus testing blitz for Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood after the city’s contact tracing operation spotted signs of ongoing spread.

“We now have a warning light,” he said at his daily COVID-19 briefing Wednesday. “We want to get everyone tested as quickly as possible to see what is going on and if there’s something further we need to do.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio Credit: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene statistics analyzed by THE CITY show that neighborhood residents had trailed most of the five boroughs in seeking out testing vital to keeping the virus in check. 

Health practitioners working in the area, home to many Asian and Latino immigrants, say those numbers ring true to their experience. 

“A lot of people think people are just gonna look up online and find where to get tested, but that’s not the reality in a majority non-English speaking population,” said Mon Yuck Yu, executive director of the Academy of Medical & Public Health Services, which advised city health officials on the local testing efforts. “You need targeted outreach.”

The Health Department’s numbers also show that the Sunset Park ZIP code 11220 has lately ranked among the areas of the city where residents tested were likeliest to be infected — with a weekly positive-test rate as high as 5% at a time when the citywide average fluctuated between 1% and 2%.

Since March, one in every 50 residents in the 11220 ZIP code has tested positive for the  coronavirus and 167 people have died, the Aug. 12 update from the health department shows.  

Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi said that 3,300 people were tested during a two-week period at a special rapid-testing site at PS 503 on 59th Street, generating 228 positive results — a rate significantly higher than even Sunset Park’s July stats.

In those two weeks, volunteers knocked on doors and talked to people at parks and restaurants, encouraging everyone to get a rapid test with results delivered in less than 24 hours.

No ID was required, unlike at standard H+H sites.  

With the help of two additional pop-up testing sites, de Blasio said the city’s Test & Trace team will be “getting out into the community deeply, communicating with people at the grassroots, literally knocking on doors, talking to local organizations and leaders with a simple message: Everyone needs to get tested.”

Testing Reluctance

Standing between the mayor and his goal of universal testing among the 38,000 households in Sunset Park is residents’ proven reluctance to seek out swabbing.

Slightly more than 15.5% of people who live in Sunset Park have received testing at least once for COVID-19 since March — well below the citywide average of 20.6%. Only four other ZIP codes ranked lower for testing. 

A knit sign in Sunset Park encourages people to wash their hands during the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Since June, free testing has been open to any city resident at centers run by the city Health + Hospitals network.

Sunset Park’s H+H site is located at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, in a remote waterfront corner of the area. Nearby NYU Langone Hospital Brooklyn and CityMD also provide testing in the neighborhood.

When it comes to testing locations, Yu said area residents, especially those who speak little or no English, “don’t even know they exist.” Sometimes-limited clinic hours, she added, can make getting a testing slot hard for laborers working long days.

As THE CITY has previously reported, blue-collar immigrants throughout the city — many of whom work in industries deemed essential — have borne much of the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Working Through the Crisis

Whitney Hu, an organizer with South Brooklyn Mutual Aid Network, which serves Sunset Park, noted that many community members served by the network also live in multigenerational households where space to safely distance and quarantine is limited.

“We should be very concerned about it, especially as we have more conversations about jobs or schools reopening,” said Hu, who is also running for the City Council seat that will be vacated by term-limited Councilmember Carlos Menchaca (D-Brooklyn).

“It’s a sign that as much as we’re trying to go back to normal, we’re still in the middle of a pandemic, and even though transmission rates are low in New York City that doesn’t mean that it’s gone,” she added.

The city set up a free coronavirus testing site in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, Aug. 12, 2020. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Others fear the discovery of more infections among Sunset Park residents may be a sign of outbreaks to come.

Ligia Guallpa, who heads the Workers Justice Project, an immigrant day laborer group, recalled making wellness calls to members during the early days of the pandemic in March and April.

She said “seven out of every 10” workers who picked up the phone had symptoms of the virus. Still, she said, they were desperate to find work because their immigration status left them ineligible for economic relief

“I’m not surprised by these cases because of the fact that immigrant families at the edge of poverty have had no other choice but to go back to work,” Guallpa said.

Over 3,000 of the group’s members, most of whom work in the cleaning and construction industries, live in Sunset Park, according to Guallpa.

“It just shows how devastating COVID-19 continues to be for the community,” she said. “Sunset Park is just an example of how bad things have been for immigrant, poor communities as a whole.”

If you live in Sunset Park, here’s where and when you can get tested. The New York State Department of Health allows you to search testing sites by ZIP code:

  • CityMD Urgent Care, 5024 5th Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11220, (718) 571-9251, Monday – Friday 8am to 8pm, Saturday – Sunday 9am to 4pm.
  • NYU Langone Hospital Brooklyn, by appointment only, 150 55th St., (718) 630-7185, Monday – Friday 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sundays 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed Saturdays.
  • NYC Health + Hospitals/Brooklyn Army Terminal, 140 58th St., (844) 692-4692, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
  • Pop-up testing units:
  • Corner of 44th Street and 6th Ave: Open through Friday, Aug. 21. Open weekdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., 
  • CORE – Brooklyn Herald Gospel Center, 809 44th St.: Saturday, Aug. 15 and Sunday Aug. 16, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.