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Independent pharmacies set to become coronavirus testing centers

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Any attempt to reopen New York — or any state, for that matter — will require, at the very least, easy and abundant access to diagnostic tests to help determine who is infected with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and who isn't.

Joining that fight could be some 5,000 independent pharmacies in the state, which soon could make testing not only available, but convenient.

"We are increasing the capacity of labs," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said during his daily briefing on Saturday. "We have 300 labs getting more equipment, more supplies, so they can do more tests. Now we need more collection mechanisms, more places to collect test data, so that they can be sent to the labs."

Cuomo is authorizing independent pharmacies to be those places, while at the same time, opening up some of the criteria on who can actually get one of the not-so-available tests. 

"We had a protocol with eligibility, that not everybody could get a test," Cuomo said. "That has been a big complaint across the board. Everybody wants a test, but they couldn't get tests because we had a tight screen on the eligibility, because we had a limited capacity on the test."

Now, diagnostic tests will be expanded to include not just those who are vulnerable, or who are showing severe COVID-19 symptoms, but also those who are first responders, health care workers, and employees of what the state has described as "essential" businesses. Those include a wide variety of business and services that have remained available during the statewide lockdown, including child care workers, delivery workers, faith-based leaders, transit workers, and social workers.

"Why?" Cuomo asked. "Because these people have been carrying the load. These are the people who you interact with. When you get on the bus, this is the bus driver. When you get in the subway car, this is the subway conductor. If they are infected, they could possibly spread it to a large number of people."

As of this past weekend, more than 805,000 people have been tested in New York, with nearly 28,000 on Saturday alone. Nearly 36 percent of those who were tested were confirmed coronavirus cases in the state, with more than 5,900 added to those stats on Saturday alone. 

While a vast majority of cases have centered downstate — with just under 35,000 confirmed cases in the Bronx — there are still some hotspots upstate, including in Erie and Monroe counties. 

Just under 17,000 people have died from complications related to the coronavirus as of Sunday, according to the state's health department, with nearly 2,300 of those deaths coming in the Bronx.  Brooklyn's Kings County leads the state with more than 3,400 deaths.

Cuomo says his hope is to continue increasing overall eligibility for tests, so that anyone who wants one can get one. But first, the state has to acquire all the necessary supplies to make that happen.

"Hopefully one day we will get to the point that where anyone who wants to get a test will get a test," Cuomo said. "That was the dream, but we found out quickly we couldn't do that. We have 19 million people in the state. We had to prioritize, we are still prioritizing, but we are opening up those priorities."

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