In a Pandemic, Healthcare as a Right

Alumni5 MIN READ

In New York City, Sarah Joseph Kurien brings COVID-19 testing to the most vulnerable

By Gerry Boyle '78Photography by Michael Noble Jr.
July 6, 2020

Off the top of her head, Sarah Joseph Kurien ’09 reels off the locations of COVID-19 testing sites in New York City boroughs: Two in the Rockaways, one in western Queens, a second one opening up in western Queens this week. One in Glen Oaks, which is more suburban Queens, six sites all over the Bronx. A few in Manhattan, where there are more partners. One in East Harlem, sites across Brooklyn: Canarsie, Bay Ridge, Fort Hamilton. Several sites on Staten Island.

The testing sites, Kurien said, are in clinics, schools, libraries, a former bank, the parking lot of a sports club, a park. COVID-19 tests are offered to everyone, regardless of their ability to pay, whether they have insurance, their immigration status. 

Pre-COVID-19, as senior director of operations for NYC Care at NYC Health + Hospitals, the nation’s largest public health system, she focused on improving healthcare access for people who are ineligible for health insurance or can’t afford it. The vast majority of those enrolled are undocumented. “It’s a fairly complicated issue,” Kurien said, “but from a humanitarian perspective, people need healthcare. People need access to providers. The way we [as a country] approach folks who are undocumented leads to a lot of fear.

“One of the things that I’m really proud of,” said Kurien, “is that our message is not about it being a crisis that led somebody to seek care with us, but rather that they have a right to be there.”  

And during a pandemic, that reassurance is needed more than ever. 

Sarah Joseph Kurien '09 in New York City
Sarah Joseph Kurien ’09 is helping New York City meet its goal of providing 50,000 COVID-19 tests a day by working to establish pop-up testing sites across the city.

As deputy lead for testing at NYC’s Test and Trace Corps, managed by NYC Health + Hospitals, Kurien has worked to start up multiple new COVID-19 pop-up testing sites and increase ease of and access to diagnostic testing. The intent of the pop-up sites is to bring COVID testing to parts of the city where people are less likely to have other access to healthcare and have less experience navigating the labyrinth that the healthcare system usually presents. Kurien is involved in site selection and most other aspects of the community testing system, from property leases to hiring to supplies to reviewing metrics. 

It’s many fast-moving parts whirring to keep up with the spread of the virus—and a responsibility Kurien took on after joining NYC Health + Hospitals two years ago after a three-year stint as a senior policy advisor in the New York City mayor’s Office of Operations. That directly followed her master’s of public administration degree at Cornell, and work in nonprofits in India, where she grew up. Coming to Colby as a United World College Scholar from India, she went on to receive a Davis Projects for Peace grant, which involved working to further religious tolerance among children in Mumbai’s slums. 

“I was sure of a life in public service in some way,” Kurien said. 

She has achieved that, following her grant project by working for nonprofits addressing domestic and sexual violence in Mumbai,  moving to New York, where she got involved in community organizing, then on to Cornell. “In the past, I had worked in nonprofits. It was in grad school where I started to think about local government and how to institutionalize change,” Kurien said. 

The New York City mayor’s office is local government on a big scale, and she found herself working on healthcare policy. At about that time, her father was diagnosed with ALS and died 15 months later, an experience that, with her policy work, left Kurien  “attuned to the ways in which our healthcare system fails so many every day.” 

“In a lot of ways we’re not set up to care for all the people that we need to,” she said. “As an immigrant woman of color, I started to understand what it’s like to be different, to be outside of, to not be counted. I wanted to do my part to help strengthen systems in favor of our most vulnerable people, in whatever shape that might be.”

In her nonprofit work, the challenge was making those in power see and make room for those people who are most harmed by inequitable policies. Now, in her work with city government, she faces a similar challenge: “How do we, as government, stay accountable to and supportive of those who most need resources in our communities?” 

“One of the things that I’m really proud of is that our message is not about it being a crisis that led somebody to seek care with us, but rather that they have a right to be there.”

Sarah Joseph Kurien ’09

The pandemic, with all of its tragic, destructive, and difficult effects, Kurien said, has had a leveling effect, showing that healthcare must be a right at a time when one person’s health can so drastically affect that of many others. “Our lives are only as okay as the person with the least protections,” she said. “I think that, in that sense, people have realized that as much as we look inward, we share space and breathe the same air as everybody around us.” 

In New York, that space changed dramatically as the city became an epicenter for infections and was locked down in March and April. Now, even as COVID-19 numbers decline there, Kurien is opening more testing centers as the city works to achieve its goal of 50,000 tests per day in anticipation of a possible pandemic rebound in the fall. 

Kurien said she’s tired after months of working nights and weekends, and she laments the lost lives and jobs and all of the associated heartache. She said the national landscape is discouraging and the future is unsettling. “But for every moment that I feel discouraged about the broader piece, I feel encouraged by what our local government is doing here in New York. Our institutions might not always be one-hundred percent perfect, but our values are pretty aligned, so I feel pretty grateful to be working in this environment right now.”