New Jersey reverses decision to open two COVID-19 testing sites to people without symptoms

New Jersey is seeking to expand testing availability to a wider range of residents. But it learned it needs a waiver to do so at FEMA-partner sites.
Image: PNC Test SIte, Coronavirus
Staff in protective gear prepare to test people at a drive-through COVID-19 testing site at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J. on March 24, 2020.Seth Wenig / AP file

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By Adiel Kaplan

For a few hours on Wednesday, New Jersey residents without coronavirus symptoms thought they could go to a drive-up facility to be tested for the virus.

New Jersey now has more than two dozen publicly available testing sites, and many others including private labs, for a total of 86 testing sites statewide.

The state's office of Emergency Medical Services announced Wednesday morning that its two community-based drive-up COVID-19 testing sites were expanding to offer testing for people without symptoms. Previously state guidance was that people without symptoms should not be tested.

But just hours after the announcement, Gov. Phil Murphy said at an afternoon press conference that the state may have moved too hastily, as the two sites in question are run in coordination with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the federal government has said those sites should remain for symptomatic people only.

To expand them to offer tests to anyone with symptoms, New Jersey would need to get a waiver, Murphy explained.

"It turns out, whether we wanted to or not, we actually need a federal HHS waiver, because FEMA is our partner," he said. "We may have given an impression of that that was innocently not what the facts are."

Murphy later added that the state's federal partners have "a strong edict that asymptomatic folks have to step aside to let symptomatic folks get in and get tested, and we've been sympathetic and supportive of that."

Though it won't be doing so at those two sites, New Jersey's goal is to expand testing availability to a wider range of residents.

"We have to be able to test a broader population, not just symptomatic folks, and it needs to be a rapid return test," Murphy said.

FEMA did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the testing site requirements.

The two sites, which opened in March, have not previously tested asymptomatic patients, though some patients without symptoms have been tested elsewhere in the state.

The New Jersey Department of Health referred NBC News to the governor's comments.