Pinellas County health workers are making it easier for residents in underserved neighborhoods to get tested for COVID-19. They're operating popup testing sites in areas like the North Greenwood section of Clearwater and South St. Petersburg.
These communities have a lot of Black residents who have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus.
On a recent Saturday morning, the parking lot of Mt. Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in South St. Petersburg was home to ones of these sites. Every few minutes, a couple cars rolled up to tents where nurses in protective gear screened drivers and used nasal swabs to test them for COVID-19.
It was around 10 a.m., and Rebecca Watson with the Pinellas County Urban League, which is leading the initiative, said things were quieting down since dozens of cars lined up ahead of opening.
She greeted the next driver with a smile and handed her a plastic bag filled with pamphlets about COVID-19 symptoms and prevention, and information on how to get her test results, which would come in three to five days.
Watson then asked the driver - a woman named Lisa who would not share her last name due to privacy concerns - several questions about her experience, including whether this was her first time getting tested for COVID-19 and whether Saturday mornings were more convenient than weekday mornings. Lisa answered “yes” to both.
Weekend hours and a walkup station for people without cars are meant to remove barriers that can prevent some from getting tested at the county's other sites. Many of those sites also require appointments or ask for health insurance information.
Watson said more than 70 percent of people at this site said it was their first time getting tested.
Lisa said she didn't have symptoms but wanted to find out if she had the virus.
"I work in health care and I be around all kinds of patients, and my daughter works in a nursing home, so that's one reason,” she said.
“I don't really go out around anybody, but I thought it would be safe, especially being around work with other people."
Health officials say Black residents in Pinellas are more likely to work in jobs that expose them to the coronavirus. That's just one of the reasons they're more likely to get COVID-19 than white residents.
According to state data, while Black people make up about 11 percent of the county’s population, they account for 18 percent of coronavirus cases where race is known. White people make up about 83 percent of the population but only account for 54 perfect of cases.
Black people in the county also have less access to health care. And many live in multigenerational homes and dense neighborhoods, like South St. Petersburg, where a history of discriminatory housing policies condensed a large part of the county's Black community into one area.
Tom Iovino is a public information officer with the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, which partnered with the urban league to run these popup sites.
"Oh, this is crucial,” he said about the effort. “When we see the number of cases, and they're overrepresented in communities like this that have different social determinants of health that are negative, you're looking at possible income inequity; what we want to do is we want to be able to identify how many cases there are here and then be able to respond accordingly."
Data also show nearly 20 percent of coronavirus cases in Pinellas stem from four ZIP codes in South St. Petersburg despite the area making up less than 10 percent of the county's population.
Aylvester Johnson, 72, who has lived in the neighborhood for years, suspects more people might have been exposed to the virus.
"Have you had a lot of people, yet?” he asked after his test, when the parking lot was mostly empty. I told him organizers said more than 40 cars were lined up earlier that morning.
“They need to have more than that; we got more than 40 people out here," he said.
Reaching the community
Most people who did show up that Saturday didn’t have symptoms and just wanted to make sure they weren’t asymptomatic carriers who can unknowingly spread the virus.
Many told volunteers like Latiena Williams, assistant clinical instructor at the University of South Florida’s College of Nursing, another partner in the effort, that the convenience of this site inspired them to get a test.
“It’s the No. 1 goal in communities such as these, making yourself available, because some people wouldn’t get it done if we didn’t go to them,” she said.
Mt. Zion parishioner Andrea Alonzo said she appreciated getting tested at a place she trusted.
“I think everyone should be tested and there should be tracking, and if everyone wears masks and we universally test everybody it’ll help,” she said.
Johnson wants the same things, but is skeptical about the strategy. He said even with a testing site right here in the community a lot of his neighbors wouldn't go.
“There’s a lot of people in these houses that see what you’re all doing down here, they’re peeping right at you, but they’re not going to come,” Johnson said about the popup site.
Misinformation about the coronavirus and distrust in the health care system can cause some people in low-income communities to avoid testing. Some have heard it’s a painful experience, others think they only need a test if they actually feel sick and many assume cost is involved.
“You know how they do the census, how they [the federal government] take the census?” Johnson asked. “That’s what they need to be doing, same thing, going door-to-door, make sure you get the people.”
Johnson said the county also needs to address the systemic issues that made areas like South St. Petersburg more vulnerable to COVID-19 in the first place.
"This situation we're in is not gonna get no better until the poor people be helped, the poor people’s got to be helped," said Johnson.
Rebecca Watson with the Pinellas County Urban League agrees. She said only 145 people have been tested at the popup sites during the first three sessions and that the group is trying to increase turnout.
They're educating underserved communities about the risks of COVID-19 and addressing other issues caused by the pandemic like food and job insecurity.
"There's a lot to do and a lot of opportunity to serve," she said.
The testing sites will run in different locations around the county every Saturday until Oct. 10.