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Texas Cities Experience Disparities In Access To The Coronavirus Testing

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In major cities across Texas, access to COVID-19 testing can depend on where you live. As NPR and member station KERA in Dallas have reported, there are fewer testing sites in neighborhoods that people of color call home than in whiter neighborhoods. Experts say the lack of testing access makes it harder to find and contain coronavirus outbreaks. KERA's Bret Jaspers reports on what it is like for people living in different neighborhoods when they want to get tested.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Good morning. Are you being tested today?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I am.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK. Just follow Pastor Fitz, and he will park you safely between the cones.

BRET JASPERS, BYLINE: On a recent Thursday, volunteers welcomed patients to Friendship-West Baptist Church in South Dallas, the first of several black churches in the area to host free, weekly coronavirus testing. The community is trying to make up for the gaps in health care access.

ALICE GILLUM: You'll notice that we are here because it is accessible. And you'll probably get a lot of people each time they are doing this test because it's close by.

JASPERS: Alice Gillum of South Dallas got a test. Gillum is in her late 70s. And although she doesn't have COVID-19 symptoms, she's been wanting to know if she has the virus just to be sure. But testing sites aren't plentiful where she lives, and Gillum doesn't like to drive on the highway. Free testing at her church made the process a lot easier.

ALICE GILLUM: It's about 10 minutes from home, and it's my church.

JASPERS: Gillum's pastor is Frederick Haynes of Friendship-West. He appreciates what local officials are doing to bring tests to South Dallas. There are two large federally funded drive-through sites - one in South Dallas and one downtown. The city also has a mobile service. But Haynes says many black people don't necessarily trust official channels due to past abuses by the medical industry.

FREDERICK HAYNES: We said let's use our trusted institutions. The most trusted institution in the black community is the black church, and so we have set it up where black churches are now hosting sites to test.

JASPERS: And testing is the key to understanding an outbreak in which African Americans have been hit especially hard. Nationally, black people have suffered an outsized share of deaths from coronavirus compared to their share of the population. Latinos are seeing a higher proportion of case numbers. These inequities are made worse by the fact that the private health care system places more services in whiter areas, like North Dallas.

Hi, are you Lindsay?

LINDSAY POPE: I am.

JASPERS: Hey. I'm Bret. Nice to meet you.

POPE: Nice to meet you, too.

JASPERS: Lindsay Pope lives in North Dallas and had an elective surgery planned around the time the state started opening up. As the date approached, her doctor suggested she get tested for COVID-19.

POPE: He didn't require the test, but he recommended it if we could get one. And for my own peace of mind, I was like, OK, yeah, I'll do that. But then I couldn't figure out even where to go.

JASPERS: It wasn't obvious where a healthy non-symptomatic person who isn't an essential worker could get a coronavirus test. But a friend suggested Pope use a service that comes to your home to do the test.

POPE: They came out within 45 minutes of when I booked my appointment.

JASPERS: Pope and her husband got three tests in all - two antibody tests and one diagnostic. Add in an appointment fee, and the total bill was almost $700. These on-demand health care services are often not covered by insurance. Pope says it's certainly not attainable for most people, and she wouldn't have done it without having a surgery scheduled. Finding a test, she says, is hard even under the best circumstances.

POPE: If you don't have a network that knows the medical industry or anything like that, I think it would be difficult to even know where to begin.

JASPERS: And that's even without a language barrier or difficulty getting on the Internet to find information. The city is now offering an on-demand service like this for free to people who have symptoms or had recent contact with an infected person.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Sir, do you want to come have a seat over here?

JASPERS: Back at Friendship-West Baptist Church, Alice Gillum's husband Arthur said he couldn't get tested at first because testing had been limited to certain people - like health care workers.

ARTHUR GILLUM: We had to wait, but I was ready to do it as soon as I could. And when this opportunity came, we were glad.

JASPERS: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced this week the state will expand testing in underserved communities. It's a promise to bring the two sides of Dallas, and other cities, more into alignment.

I'm Bret Jaspers in Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.