The Fern Rock Transportation Center looked more like a doctor’s office than a major SEPTA transit hub Thursday morning as employees filed in for their free coronavirus test.

Officials started COVID-19 testing for the authority’s 9,500 employees Thursday, made possible through a $90,000 contract with the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium. Testing will happen at two locations each week, rotating among the Fern Rock and 69th Street Transportation Centers, Suburban Station, and the agency’s Midvale Depot. Fifty testing slots are available each day, said SEPTA General Manager Leslie S. Richards.

“There were people who doubted that we would be able to get something done, or voiced they’re surprised,” Richards said. “But this is exactly what SEPTA should be doing. This is how we can best serve our communities.”

Physician Ala Stanford of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, City Councilmember Cherelle L. Parker, and SEPTA board vice chairman Kenneth E. Lawrence Jr. joined Richards, all masked, during Thursday’s announcement. In May, Lawrence, who is also a Montgomery County commissioner, announced he had tested positive for the coronavirus.

“Our employees are out there on the front line everyday," Lawrence said. "That’s why it’s important they should have the security of knowing that they can get a test if they need a test.”

Stanford thanked the authority for being the group’s first contract Thursday.

“It speaks volumes about the organization that they are,” Stanford said. “Because aside from working in a hospital, I don’t know that many people who are saying, ‘We recognize that you’re front-line employees, and we want to make sure you get tested.'”

Earlier this week, city officials said they would back the consortium’s efforts to bring free testing to neighborhoods most heavily affected by the coronavirus.

Heidi Challes, an employee in SEPTA’s internal audit department, was the first to take advantage of the program Thursday. She’s not showing any symptoms but is getting tested for peace of mind.

“I just thought this is a great opportunity to make sure that we aren’t going back to work being positive for COVID,” said Challes, 59.

Heidi Challes, an employee in SEPTA's internal audit department, gets tested for coronavirus at Fern Rock Transportation Center.
Patricia Madej
Heidi Challes, an employee in SEPTA's internal audit department, gets tested for coronavirus at Fern Rock Transportation Center.

SEPTA employee Joe Cox, who also got tested Thursday morning, was of similar mind. “I’ve been working through the whole thing, too, so just want to make sure," said Cox, 63.

SEPTA has had 288 confirmed employee coronavirus cases, and 171 employees have returned to work. Seven SEPTA employees have died from coronavirus complications.

The authority faced criticism from employees and union leaders for not implementing testing and temperature checks earlier in the pandemic. Willie Brown, president of Transport Workers Union Local 234, refrained from a job action that threatened SEPTA’s transit service in April after the authority progressed on safeguards.

SEPTA has made temperature screening available to employees as the region begins to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Patricia Madej
SEPTA has made temperature screening available to employees as the region begins to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Diagnostic testing, while valuable, provides only a snapshot; someone with a negative result is not protected from infection in the future. There are no reliable screening tests, and antibody tests that look for signs of past infection are often inaccurate.

SEPTA’s temperature screening is occurring through a separate program. It began last week and is available at more than three dozen locations, Richards said.

NJ Transit recently expanded coronavirus testing for its nearly 12,000 employees to sites in Trenton, Manahawkin, and Toms River.

SEPTA is bracing for more riders as the region adjusts to a “yellow” reopening guide and most recently began requiring riders to wear facial coverings.

“It feels good to be able to work on reopening," Richards said. “It feels good to be moving in that direction.”

Staff writer Marie McCullough contributed to this article.