More New York Parishes Serving as Sites for Covid-19 Testing

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What began as 10 or so parishes in the Archdiocese of New York serving as temporary Covid-19 testing sites will grow into the dozens.

In late May, a number of parishes, with promotion led by St. Elizabeth in Washington Heights, began offering their church and school grounds as testing sites for doctors and nurses from SOMOS Community Care, a nonprofit organization based in Manhattan.

The parish-based testing is scheduled to continue until September. SOMOS has enjoyed a long community service relationship with St. Elizabeth, including food distribution projects that began increasing in March because of the coronavirus crisis. Food giveaways are occurring at most of the parishes, often simultaneously with the virus testing. People without insurance are being tested at no cost.

“The initial decision was that we were going to do it for a few days, but I said, ‘No, we can’t; we have to keep this open to make sure that the community is served,’” Dr. Ramon Tallaj, chairman and founder of SOMOS, told Catholic New York in a phone interview last month.

Dr. Tallaj said conducting the testing at “a house of prayer, perhaps would make people feel more confident” about coming forward.

“Jesus said for us to do for others in the same way that we would want to be treated,” Dr. Tallaj said.

Dr. Tallaj, who is Dominican born, is a married father of six. His family resides in New Jersey and attends Mass in the Archdiocese of Newark. Dr. Tallaj said he immigrated to New York in 1991 after Cardinal John O’Connor, then the Archbishop of New York, helped him obtain a visa. They first met several years earlier when the cardinal visited the Dominican Republic, when Dr. Tallaj was a top government health care administrator.

He said Cardinal O’Connor encouraged him to offer his medical service in Hispanic communities in New York. Dr. Tallaj worked at St. Clare’s Hospital in Manhattan, now closed, and he established a practice in the Bronx and later in Washington Heights.

SOMOS Community Care, founded in 2015, is a network of 2,500 doctors serving close to 800,000 largely immigrant New Yorkers. In partnership with the Archdiocese of New York, agency organizers say they are focusing on healing a distressed city whose immigrant communities are reeling from the deadly pandemic and the dire economic setbacks it has created.

Pope Francis addressed SOMOS doctors and staffers, led by Dr. Tallaj, at the Vatican last September during a symposium the agency promoted. The pope spoke about access to health care as a universal right, and commended the SOMOS commitment. 

“I was able to get a message to him about what we’re doing in New York,” Dr. Tallaj said. “About how we’re taking care of the people we serve in our community.” Dr. Tallaj said SOMOS doctors travel abroad for health care gatherings so they can share ideas with doctors from other countries. They were able to visit the Vatican during such a gathering in Italy.

Cardinal Dolan, in a recent statement, said that the partnership between the Archdiocese of New York and SOMOS Community Care “to set up Covid-19 testing sites at dozens of Catholic parishes across the city in some of the most diverse and underserved neighborhoods is needed so much right now.”

“This is the essence of healing, the essence of unity, the essence of community service,” the cardinal said.

Parishes in the archdiocese staffed by SOMOS health care professionals are providing Covid-19 testing to local communities, lay workers and clergy members. The testing sites are located in predominantly Latino communities in the Bronx and upper Manhattan. SOMOS is also providing the service in Catholic parishes in Brooklyn and Queens, as well as at Protestant churches as well as community centers in New York.

Father Felix Reyes, C.R.L., the pastor of St. Jude parish in the Inwood area of Manhattan, said the testing efforts have been an “expression of service” by the Church and SOMOS for the community during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is part of Catholic social teaching, to make our presence known to all humanity,” said Father Reyes, noting God’s call to love our neighbors. “My hope is that we can soon return to normality, in terms of the workforce, and also socially—and spiritually through the Church.”

In addition to St. Elizabeth and St. Jude, other churches in the archdiocese where SOMOS has provided Covid-19 testing include Our Lady Queen of Martyrs, St. Brigid-St. Emeric and St. Cecilia-Holy Agony, all in Manhattan; St. Nicholas of Tolentine, Holy Spirit, St. Luke, St. Anthony of Padua and St. Rita of Cascia, all in the Bronx; St. Clement-St. Michael on Staten Island; and St. Peter-St. Denis in Yonkers.

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