One morning two weeks ago, Suraj Patel felt a tightness in his chest.
The 36-year-old New York 12th District congressional candidate and Stern School of Business professor said the sensation was accompanied by trouble breathing and later, a fever. He added that it was unlike anything he’d ever experienced.
“It was this really strange, alien feeling where you don’t have congestion. I wasn’t coughing or anything, but all the sudden I realized I’d be out of breath by going up the stairs, like one flight of stairs,” Patel told WSN. “I’m pretty healthy, I work out and run and all that stuff so that never happens to me.”
He then took, in light of the circumstances, what he considered the most logical measure: a COVID-19 test. Patel’s older brother and housemate Viral Patel — an emergency room doctor — was able to conduct at-home nasal swab coronavirus tests for the household, which consists of Patel and his two brothers.
The samples were sealed and sent to a lab in Brooklyn. They all came back positive.
After enduring waves of symptoms, Patel recovered. His experience, however, galvanized him in his push for universal testing — making COVID-19 tests easily available for everyone.
There are currently 335,524 reported COVID-19 cases in the United States, with 9,562 deaths. Amid the chaos and ever-changing nature of the pandemic, the U.S. has become embroiled in a testing crisis. Many U.S. distributing companies and hospitals have reported testing backlogs and ineffective tests issued by the Centers for Disease Control.
Additionally, President Donald Trump’s inconsistent rhetoric on testing has presented significant obstacles and led to mass confusion.
“This is no time to double down on the biggest mistake of this COVID-19 epidemic so far, which is a lack of information, data and testing,” Patel said. “Most people can agree that there are few things right now probably scarier in your mind than having a positive COVID test. Perhaps, except not knowing whether you have it or had had it at all.”
Patel, an NYU School of Law alumnus, emphasized that the only solution he sees for assuaging the pandemic is testing as many people as possible.
“No solution that doesn’t focus on testing is one that’s really going to be long-term feasible or plausible,” Patel said. “Everything else is going to always rely on social distancing, but the minute we get back together, I’m sure that infections will spike again, which is what Asia is finding out.”
Patel’s proposed universal testing program would entail separating people into three groups: those who have tested positive for the coronavirus, those who previously had it and are now immune and those who are still at risk.
He also advocates for means of testing that permit less hospital crowding, such as at-home or mobile testing. In his explanation of what this could look like, Patel cited Great Britain.
“Britain actually just ordered millions of at-home test kits for antibodies that you can read yourself like a pregnancy test, and it lets you know whether or not you carry the antibodies for COVID because a large number of people already had the disease and we’re asymptomatic,” Patel said.
These at-home tests would take around 15 minutes and would be distributed to the British public on Amazon and in pharmacist shops. The surge in testing efforts in the country — which has previously been condemned for its testing complacency — likely stems from nearly 8% of the country’s National Health Service workforce being left unable to work due to COVID-19 complications.
“The kits that the United Kingdom is ordering right now are going to cost £10 which is about $12 per kit,” Patel said. “If you multiply that by every American, which you don’t even need to do […] that’s around $4 billion. We just passed a $2 trillion rescue package, it’s plausible.”
He added that these tests do not require sophisticated technological advances.
“We’re not waiting for some sort of technological breakthrough or discovery or invention,“ Patel said. “Most university labs, NYU’s university lab, have the reagents and equipment necessary to read many types of these tests.”
Patel also pointed to cases of effective widespread testing in South Korea, Iceland and the small Italian town of Vò. He reiterated that universal testing is possible and that the onus for its implementation must be placed on politicians.
“It’s just a matter of mobilizing in a coordinated way, a coordinated response, perhaps using the private sector, the military, universities — all hands on deck to ramp up testing capacity and make this a national directive, “ Patel said. “What we’re lacking here is basically political will.”
The pandemic has not only affected Patel’s policies, but also how he communicates with constituents prior to the election. The campaign has now taken to social media livestreams and Zoom to host town halls with medical experts and workers affected by the pandemic.
“I’m proud of the fact that our team, which has a lot of NYU students on it, is digitally savvy,“ Patel said. “It wasn’t a big transition for people to figure out, ‘Okay well we’ll do town halls on Facebook Live’.”
While Patel acknowledged the difficulty in gauging the effectiveness of online campaigning strategies against in-person campaigning, he remains optimistic about being able to communicate with voters.
A previous staffer on both Obama campaigns, Patel touts himself on his progressive agenda, centered on climate change, debt-free college and the Green New Deal. This is his second congressional campaign, following an earlier run in 2018. He is among two other democrats in the race against incumbent Carolyn Maloney in New York’s 12th district.
New York has postponed its presidential primary election to June 23, falling on the same day as the congressional primary in which Patel is running. The November 2020 general election still has yet to be moved.
LS sophomore Divya Sasidhar is also an intern on the Patel campaign and echoed Urffer’s sentiments on the dramatic shift of the staff’s responsibilities.
“The nature of our work as interns has changed pretty much entirely,” Sasidhar told WSN. “We’ve mostly been making calls to our neighbors in the 12th district to make sure they’re okay.”
Her views differed from Urffer’s to the extent that she felt the campaign’s remote work still bred a sense of community between constituents and the campaign.
“I’ve had a lot of people who have been really grateful to have a friendly voice on the other side of the line who wants to hear about what’s been difficult for them recently,” Sasidhar said. “I think it’s been effective in that way.”
Patel embraces the sense of community shrouding his campaign, and this ultimately ties to his push for universal testing.
“To my knowledge, this is the first time, in my lifetime, that a crisis is actually universally affecting every single one of us,” Patel said. “It’s also not good for the economy and for the country. The only way we are really going to beat this thing is to universally test people.”
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 6, 2020, print edition. Email Lisa Cochran at [email protected]