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COVID Testing Isn't Always Accessible. This Foundation Is Bringing It Closer

Verónica Zaragovia / WLRN
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Health Foundation of South Florida is spending $1.5 million on groups to do outreach and get more people tested in hard-hit communities that have mostly Black and Latino residents.

On an afternoon in October, a team of outreach workers set out to convince people to get tested for COVID-19, in a residential neighborhood of East Little Havana — far from the Domino Park and popular restaurants of Calle Ocho.

The group of three started knocking on the white doors at a two-story apartment building. Lisette Mejía answered her door, holding a baby in her arms, as two small children stood on either side of her.

"Not everyone has easy access to the internet or the ability to look for appointments," Mejía said about why she hadn't gotten a test, after explaining she hasn't had any symptoms.

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So Healthy Little Havana came to her doorstep to help. Elvis Mendes, Maria Elena Gonzalez and Alejandro Días, with the non-profit organization, gave her some cotton masks and told her about pop-up testing that weekend at an elementary school — just a short walk away.

Healthy Little Havana has received funding from the Health Foundation of South Florida, which is spending $1.5 million on several groups to do outreach and get more people tested in hard-hit communities with mostly Black and Latino residents in the region.

The foundation's grants range between $35,000 and $160,000 to Healthy Little Havana, the South Florida chapter of the James Wilson Bridges, MD Medical Society, Centro Campesino, the Allapattah Collaborative Community Development Corporation and the YMCA of South Florida.

Representatives from the foundation said they knew the obstacles existed across South Florida: Obstacles like not having a car, or having a work schedule that coincides with the hours during which the county and state-run sites operate and the cost of a test at a pharmacy being too high, among others.

So they wanted to find solutions, especially since someone who has COVID-19 without any symptoms can not only easily infect other people but because people react differently to the disease — the people they infect can get gravely ill and potentially die.

By getting more people tested, and finding more of those asymptomatic cases, the spread of COVID-19 would slow down.

In Miami-Dade, the foundation and the community-based organizations it is funding are collaborating with the county government to increase testing. In Broward, they're collaborating with the the housing authority to help bring testing to residents.

As the Healthy Little Havana team moved across the outdoor hallway of the building, a lot of people weren't home, but the team of three got lucky when Gloria Carvajal answered her door.

"I have a question," Carvajal asked, laughing. "What about that stick they put all the way up?"

Gonzalez jumped in to reassure her that it's not so bad.

"I’ve done it many times because obviously we’re out and about in public and so we have to get the test done," said Gonzalez.

Veronica Zaragovia / WLRN
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

As they spoke to residents, Gonzalez added each person's name to a database on a tablet. They use the person's name and contact information to follow up and find out if people did get tested or if they need more help to get a test.

Mendes said he hears about another concern when speaking to people.

"People usually say, 'Oh, we’re not getting tested,' because they’re not certain if they should do it or not — mostly because some people are undocumented," Mendes said.

The team handed out flyers about Ready Responders, a group of paramedics that visits someone’s home to give a free COVID-19 test, regardless of immigration status.

They also told people many times that they live in the neighborhood, and getting the numbers down is something they care about personally. A lot of people say they are asymptomatic.

"Our mission is for all these people to get tested regardless if they have a symptom or not, so we could diminish the level of people getting COVID-19," he said.

The county and state-run sites accommodate a lot of people but still too many people don't get tested, explained Janisse Schoepp, the vice president of operations and strategy at the Health Foundation.

"Government has to act fast," she said, about how in the beginning of the pandemic, drive-through testing sites opened quickly.

"Then a couple of months later it was, 'Oh wait, we’re leaving behind those that don’t have vehicles. Let’s open up walk-up test sites,'" she said.

Still, having sites that are close by, or that can accommodate pedestrians, isn't enough. That's why the foundation feels confident that these groups will fill the gaps.

Sometimes, it's just helping people calm their fears about the test itself.

"I almost thought I was going to have brain damage," joked Pastor Richard Dunn II of the Faith Community Baptist Church in Miami. "They went up there so deep. I know they're doing their job, just a little humor, that's all."

Verónica Zaragovia / WLRN
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Dunn, his wife and his son live together at their home in Liberty City, and earlier this year they all got and recovered from COVID-19. Dunn said multi-generational homes are common in Miami-Dade County, and that's a big reason why the coronavirus spreads easily.

He believes that offering testing where people feel comfortable may help them overcome the anxiety. Dunn tried this out by offering testing at his church in October.

"You know us. You know who we are," he said. "You know we wouldn’t allow anybody to do anything to hurt you."

A group called Keeping The Faith helps to organize testing at Black churches and inform people about COVID-19 as they did at Dunn's church, with help from the Health Foundation.

Like voting, Dunn said testing needs to be closer to the people.

"That’s why they have precincts set up all over the county and all over the states with voting," he added. His church is a voting precinct during elections, too.

Dunn recently led a prayer service in Liberty City for people who’ve died of COVID-19 in Miami-Dade County. He stood in front of hundreds of white plastic tombstones that filled a field at Simonhoff Park behind him in a symbolic memorial.

"Thousands upon thousands have died," he said. "And so we're saying to the Lord here today, we're not going to let their deaths be in vain."

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Veronica Zaragovia