EAST ORANGE - If you’re bitten by an animal suspected of having rabies, time is of the essence. The animal needs to be tested quickly to determine if treatment is necessary. But an East Orange woman didn’t find out for 39 days that she needed rabies treatment, because the animal that bit her sat untested in a freezer at a state office building, a Kane In Your Corner investigation finds. And neither the New Jersey nor the East Orange Departments of Health are willing to take responsibility for this potentially life-threatening delay.

Cecile Berry says she was shocked when she found out she needed to undergo rabies treatment for a bite she’d received almost six weeks earlier. Berry and her roommate like to feed stray cats at an abandoned building behind their property. But on Aug. 17, one of the cats there bit her. “I must have picked her up wrong and she turned around and bit me,” Berry says.

Berry took the cat to a local veterinarian’s office, where it died. The vet then turned the cat’s body over to the East Orange Department of Health (EODOH), with a request it be tested for rabies. An East Orange employee transported the body to a state office building in Newark. But instead of being transported to the New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH) lab, the specimen sat in a freezer in Newark for weeks. It wasn’t until Sept. 24, almost six weeks after Berry was bitten, that the NJDOH finally tested the sample and found out the cat did, in fact, have rabies. Only by sheer luck had Berry not caught the disease.

Doctor Derrick DeSilva, who specializes in Internal Medicine, says rabies is often fatal, and symptoms, including “very high fevers, seizures and loss of consciousness” can present themselves in as little as 10 days. Dr. DeSilva says the nearly six-week delay in testing is inexcusable. “Samples should be handled and looked at immediately, because you want treatment to happen as soon as possible,” he says.

Why was the case handled so badly? Neither the EODOH nor NJDOH would comment, but in documents obtained by Kane In Your Corner, each agency appears to try to blame the other. 

In an internal report, East Orange Health Director Rochelle Evans writes Berry’s complaints to them are “unfounded” because “EODOH was in possession of the specimen for less than one day.” 

But in an email, NJDOH Principal Rabies Control Technician Linda Frese says East Orange “did not follow up on the bite report as required. I also don't understand why they brought the specimen to the Newark Regional Office courier pick up site rather than transporting the specimen directly to the rabies lab.” Frese says that could have delayed the process by one to four days. 

Neither document explains why the specimen went untested for nearly six weeks. 

This isn’t the first time Kane In Your Corner has investigated the East Orange Department of Health. Just last week, the city’s health director, Rochelle Evans, was hit with 44 civil and criminal charges stemming from poor treatment of animals at the city’s animal shelter. Kane In Your Corner exposed poor conditions at the shelter last summer.