The Grassroots Efforts to Save the Lives of Immigrants Who Can’t Get Covid-19 Testing From the State

Local groups are stepping in to fill a lethal void.

Maurizio Guerrero July 2, 2020

Jerome Montgomery (right), executive director of Chicago’s Project Vida, meets with a client June 19. The group provides Covid-19 testing to one of the hardest-hit communities in the state of Illinois.

NEW YORK—When Sorai­da and her hus­band expe­ri­enced Covid-19 symp­toms in mid-March, no one at the New York City hot­lines, meant to direct res­i­dents to test­ing sites, answered their calls for sup­port. After sev­er­al days, an oper­a­tor final­ly offered them a test­ing appoint­ment in Queens — miles away from their Bronx apart­ment — on the con­di­tion they get there by car, rather than pub­lic trans­porta­tion. But they didn’t have a car.

Members of immigrant families like Soraida's, will still get sick and even die with little institutional support.
It was not until mid-April that Sorai­da (whose last name is with­held to pro­tect her immi­gra­tion sta­tus) and her hus­band could get an appoint­ment in the Bronx — at a pri­vate walk-in clin­ic. The clin­ic then refused to give them their results unless they paid $60 each, even after they pre­sent­ed their Med­ic­aid cards. By then, they were feel­ing bet­ter — but their two chil­dren were show­ing severe symptoms.

We didn’t have mon­ey at the time,” says Sorai­da, an immi­grant who arrived in the Bronx 20 years ago from Mex­i­co. None of us were work­ing, and we’ve had to pay for the Tylenols and the reme­dies we need­ed to fight off the virus out of our own pock­et.” Sorai­da and her fam­i­ly even­tu­al­ly recov­ered, but their sto­ry is dis­tress­ing­ly common. 

The pan­dem­ic has exac­er­bat­ed the Unit­ed States’ under­ly­ing inequal­i­ties, right down to who has the means and abil­i­ty to get test­ed for Covid-19. Poor peo­ple and peo­ple of col­or have been dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly impact­ed.

In response, local and grass­roots groups are fill­ing a health­care void too often left by governments.

Var­i­ous non­prof­its and church­es throughout the coun­try, for exam­ple, are offer­ing free Covid-19 test­ing — nec­es­sary to con­trol the spread of the dis­ease — to any­one who wants it. The country’s over­all test­ing capac­i­ty has lagged through­out the pan­dem­ic. By the third week of April, the Unit­ed States was per­form­ing about 150,000 tests per day; experts had said sev­er­al times that fig­ure would be need­ed to curb the spread. 

Test­ing has ramped up sharply since April, but experts are still warn­ing that a lack of nation­al coor­di­na­tion is ham­per­ing a recov­ery. The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment still has not intro­duced a nation­al con­tact-trac­ing pro­gram to inform peo­ple of their poten­tial expo­sure, a key mech­a­nism to slow the spread of the coronavirus. 

Project Vida is a health non­prof­it in Chicago’s Lit­tle Vil­lage neigh­bor­hood, home to the city’s largest Mex­i­can immi­grant com­mu­ni­ty. Lati­nos have the high­est Covid-19 infec­tion rate in Illi­nois. See­ing an urgent need to test in Lit­tle Vil­lage, Project Vida mem­bers threw them­selves into the work. Our first day of test­ing was April 16, and I felt that it was already too late,” says Jerome Mont­gomery, the group’s exec­u­tive director.

While Project Vida does not ask for its clients’ immi­gra­tion sta­tus, Mont­gomery esti­mates near­ly 75% of the 3,000-plus peo­ple test­ed so far are undoc­u­ment­ed. There are now at least 10 test­ing sites near Lit­tle Vil­lage, but hun­dreds of test­ing sites are need­ed to stop the spread of the virus in Chica­go, Mont­gomery says. Chica­go has few­er than 100 total test­ing sites.

Up to 60% of the indi­vid­u­als who have test­ed pos­i­tive by Project Vida have been asymp­to­matic, illus­trat­ing the impor­tance of wide­spread test­ing — because peo­ple can spread the dis­ease with­out know­ing they have it. 

Accord­ing to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion, one of the pri­ma­ry fac­tors fuel­ing coro­n­avirus dis­par­i­ties is the insti­tu­tion­al racism inher­ent in hous­ing seg­re­ga­tion. Peo­ple of col­or tend to reside in neigh­bor­hoods far from med­ical facil­i­ties, which dri­ves con­ta­gion and hin­ders access to care. 

This real­i­ty is deeply felt in places like Brook­lyn, one of the country’s largest Covid-19 hotspots. Star­rett City, a series of Brook­lyn hous­ing projects pri­mar­i­ly home to African Amer­i­cans, is New York’s hard­est-hit neigh­bor­hood. Already bat­tered by one of the high­est crime rates in New York, Star­rett City has also been left behind in the pan­dem­ic response.

New York opened the clos­est test­ing site for Star­rett City res­i­dents April 17, long after the pan­dem­ic had begun rav­aging the com­mu­ni­ty — and it’s a half hour away by pub­lic transportation. 

Two area church­es (Key to Heav­en Taber­na­cle Church and the Fran­co-Hait­ian Min­istries) have tried to fill the test­ing gaps in Brook­lyn — receiv­ing sup­port from North­well Health, a large non­prof­it health provider — by offer­ing free test­ing for one week in June. But they are still about a half hour away by bus from Star­rett City. (A total of 49 church­es in New York are includ­ed in the over­all program.)

Peo­ple of col­or are still test­ing pos­i­tive for Covid-19 at two to three times the rate of New York City’s aver­age, accord­ing to Deb­bie Salas-Lopez, spokesper­son for North­well Health. Clear­ly, more inter­ven­tion is needed.

Con­sid­er­ing that many experts expect a sec­ond wave of coro­n­avirus in the com­ing months, peo­ple of col­or will remain the most affect­ed by the pan­dem­ic as states ease their coro­n­avirus restric­tions. Mem­bers of immi­grant fam­i­lies like Soraida’s will still get sick, and pos­si­bly die, with lit­tle fed­er­al sup­port for test­ing and con­tact-trac­ing programs. 

As we enter a new phase of the pan­dem­ic, Mont­gomery says, Covid-19 will con­tin­ue to be dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly impact­ing these communities.”
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