Inside the TestMV trailer parked on the grounds of the Agricultural Society is a photo montage of workers and volunteers wearing a series of masks. Faces are covered with blue surgical masks, N95 masks and large, clear visors that stretch from above the head to below the chin.

“Those were to help deaf people be able to read our lips,” said Declan McBride the site manager of TestMV. “We tried them all over the last year and a half.”

The test center opened on June 1, 2020, a few short months after the pandemic outbreak. The idea was to create a drive-through testing center for Islanders, free, with no red tape. Nothing like it had been done before on the Island. First the site was located at the regional high school; later it moved to the West Tisbury School and finally to its current location at the Agricultural Society grounds.

On March 31, after conducting nearly 48,000 tests, TestMV will close its doors.

“It has been a wild ride,” said Mr. McBride, who has been with TestMV from the start, rising from site coordinator to site manger. “We road every wave, the ups and the downs, the dips and the surges.”

“We had many iterations,” he continued, referring to the workers and volunteers who made TestMV possible. “Every time we needed new people, we grew another team. The whole community came out. It was for the community, by the community.”

The current team on the ground is down to three: Mr. McBride, Evan Hartford, who began as test site coordinator this winter, and Donna McElroy, the lead clinical observer. Ms. McElroy has been with TestMV since the beginning, starting as a volunteer.

Deb Rusckowski cutting the opening day ribbon for TestMV on June 1, 2020. — Jeanna Shepard

“I’m a registered nurse and when they heard me speaking Portuguese to someone in line, they said wow, and hired me,” she said. Ms. McElroy learned Portuguese when she was with the Peace Corps in Brazil.

Thinking back over the journey, Ms. McElroy said that during the height of the pandemic, when friends were telling her how depressed and isolated they felt, she took solace in coming to work each day, having a purpose to keep her neighbors safe.

She remembered TestMV’s record-setting pace just before Thanksgiving 2020. “We did 438 tests in one day,” she said. “The cars stretched all the way down Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road. We had five tents going at once.”

But back when the pandemic was still in its early stages, when a vaccine was nowhere in sight and confusion and fear ruled the day, there was at first nowhere to turn. Then a backyard conversation between a local businessman and a seasonal resident changed the Island’s trajectory.

“Steve Rusckowski, the CEO of Quest Diagnostics, was at his house in Edgartown and he started talking to Mike Donaroma,” recalled Ron Rappaport, an Island attorney. “They called me and said, ‘We’ve got to have tests here. How do we set it up?’ So we started by dividing it into categories. We needed a provider, and that became Island Health Care, we needed collaboration with the Island boards of health, and we needed money for the uninsured. Everyone signed on immediately,” Mr. Rappaport said.

“In terms of the bad of Covid, which we all know has been very bad, this was a moment of pure serendipity, a real silver lining,” he continued. “The Rusckowskis gave us a tremendous gift and all I can say is thank you to them and to everyone who came together to help.”

Mr. Rappaport’s first call was to James Anthony, president and CEO of the Martha’s Vineyard Bank.

“We needed $100,000 so the tests could be free for everyone,” Mr. Rappaport said. “And I called up James Anthony and he said right away, ‘you got it.’”

Mr. Anthony remembered the day he received Mr. Rappaport’s call.

“Ron called me on my way to work and asked if the bank would contribute $100,000 and I said yes. It was that simple. It was an obvious need,” he said.

The initial bank donation was only the beginning, as the bank and others began to donate money and in-kind support. Meanwhile, the bank was also processing nearly $50 million in payroll protection loans.

“It was a remarkable thing you don’t see in very many places, all of these different parties coming together and supporting each other,” Mr. Anthony said. “I can’t tell you how happy, proud and humbled we were to participate.”

But money was just one part of the equation. The logistics of starting and operating a test site required participation from numerous groups and individuals around the Island.

Keeping the tests going during the Thanksgiving 2020 surge. — Jeanna Shepard

“The whole thing was an amazing Vineyard partnership from the beginning,” said Cynthia Mitchell, CEO of Island Health Care. “The Rusckowskis and Ron and Michael Donaroma, the Martha’s Vineyard Bank and the boards of health. And we were the home for it.”

Ms. Mitchell explained that as a federally qualified health center the word federal refers to federal funding.

“Covid relief funding came quickly and generously to federal health centers so we had the funds and ability to set up test centers,” she said.

She said dealing with a pandemic is in her organization’s mission description — not that anyone expected to actually have to confront this challenge.

“I guess we have to do this now too,” Ms. Mitchell remembered thinking, and jumped right in. She also gave huge credit to the Island boards of health and the whole Vineyard community.

“We had 135 or more volunteers come out, no questions asked,” she said. “No one even asked for a stipend. And that allowed us to actually do the job — we kept the Island safe.”

More recently, Island Health Care has brought rapid test kits to the Island and staged give-away days. The declining case numbers and the availability of the rapid test kits were a big part of the decision to close TestMV, as more people shifted to testing themselves at home. PCR tests will still be done at the hospital and Ms. Mitchell said Island Health Care will continue to distribute rapid test kits.

“We are about to receive another 8,100 rapid tests next week to add to what we have on hand, so there will be good supply going forward,” she said.

Reflecting on the journey, Ms. Mitchell called it an emotional moment. “It runs the gamut from bittersweet to sad that such a terrific thing is coming to an end. On the other hand, it can’t happen fast enough.”

These feelings were echoed by Maura Valley, the Tisbury health agent who has acted as a spokesman for the six Island boards of health throughout.

“I understand that maybe in terms of need, now is the time to close it but I feel a little sad,” Ms. Valley said. “And we will miss everyone who works there. I hope they know how much they have contributed to this effort.”

She continued: “It was so important to keeping our numbers low. People were panicking in the beginning and there was no place for asymptomatic people to get tested. For visitors and businesses, knowing TestMV was there was essential.”

Ms. Valley said the site would host group days, where dentists or hairdressers or hospitality workers could all come in to get tested each week.
“Or if one person at a construction site tested positive we could get the rest of the workers to come in.”

It was exactly that sort of fast and targeted testing that Steve and Deb Rusckowski wanted to help make happen during that initial backyard conversation. Mr. Rusckowski had already set up a few drive-through test stations in other parts of the country, and so he had some familiarity with how to make it happen on the Island.

“But a parking lot in East Boston is a lot different than the Vineyard,” he said in a phone interview this week. “All the dynamics had to be worked out — supplies, volunteers, specimen protection so they don’t get overheated.”

At the height of the pandemic, Quest was handling about 150,000 tests a day from around the country, he said.

“We had 4,000 Quest automobiles and drivers throughout the country picking up and delivering specimens to our labs,” he said.

And that was just one part of the logistical mountain to climb each day.

“If you think about the different steps it took even

after everything was set up,” he said. “First we had to collect the specimens and keep the medical professionals safe while doing that. And even getting the swabs wasn’t so simple initially.”

One immediate problem, he said, was that 60 per cent of the world’s swabs are made in northern Italy. “As you may recall, one of the first outbreak’s took place in Italy and so they were shut down and we had to get new suppliers.”

After the specimens were collected they had to be sent to the laboratory, which for the Vineyard was located at Quest’s Marlborough plant. “A courier would meet the ferry in Woods Hole each day,” Mr. Rusckowski said.

Then the specimens had to be sorted and analyzed and sent back to the patient. “We were working seven days, 24 hours, 365,” he said. “And we were all learning together.”

He continued: “It created an awareness as well as helped to manage the virus in its early days. And it was rewarding and encouraging to see the collaboration and cooperation, the teamwork that happened on the Vineyard to pull this together.”

Mr. Rusckowski said Quest is currently doing about 45,000 tests a day. “The virus will be around the country and the world for the foreseeable future,” he said. “And we are still trying to understand how to manage it.”

Back at the TestMV trailer, Mr. McBride, Mr. Hartford and Ms. McElroy said they are preparing for their own next chapters after helping to manage the virus for everyone on the Vineyard for so long. First up, they all said, were road trips. Mr. McBride plans to head to Alabama initially to catch up with friends he knows there from his days working in AmeriCorps. Mr. Hartford will travel to Canada to visit his girlfriend and then return to the Island and his work at the Oak Bluffs Harbor.

Ms. McElroy said she will travel to Philadelphia and then California.

“It’s like the Garth Brooks song, Learning to Live Again,” she said. “That is what I’m going to be focusing on.”