COVID-19 testing now targeting underserved communities

Line forms as COVID-19 testing begins at Emmett Reed Center.
Line forms as COVID-19 testing begins at Emmett Reed Center. (WJXT)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The line outside the Emmett Reed Community Center in Jacksonville spanned the parking lot Wednesday morning.

People in the predominately black neighborhood wore masks covering their faces and stood feet apart. Others who were unable to stand sat in chairs in the parking lot waiting for their turn to be tested for COVID-19.

The testing center is unlike several in Jacksonville because the tests are free of charge and the goal is to focus efforts on an underserved community.

Dozens of UF Health Jacksonville volunteers were on hand to evaluate those seeking tests, and they’re expected to see about 2,000 people over the next several weeks. Eighty people were tested at the site on Wednesday.

The hospital is encouraging people 65 and older to get tested on Friday at the community center.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of the White House coronavirus task force and one of the nation’s top health experts, said Tuesday that the novel coronavirus is shining a “bright light” on unacceptable health disparities in African-American communities.

Early data analyzed by ProPublica shows a disproportionate number of African Americans in Michigan, Illinois and North Carolina have been infected with the virus.

In Florida, State Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, said the Senate Democratic Caucus has been pushing state health officials to release data breaking down the race of COVID-19 patients.

“I asked directly to the surgeon general, then we had a conference call with the surgeon general last week asking for that information,” Gibson said.

In a letter Wednesday to Gov. Ron DeSantis, State Rep. Shevrin Jones requested that the state add more COVID-19 testing sites in predominately black communities.

“This pandemic is shining a greater light on the fact that healthcare has been unaffordable and inaccessible for too many Americans for decades,” Rep. Jones said.

In a press conference Wednesday, DeSantis addressed how the state is handling black communities in Florida potentially being disproportionately impacted by the virus.

“We’re now breaking out by race or ethnicity," DeSantis said. “[We] don’t have it for every patient, but the ones we do we’re putting it there. And then we’re also with University of Florida and Shands, we’re supporting with our supplies, a kind of an investigation into some of the public housing communities. [It’s] going to be in Jacksonville primarily African-American populations where they may be not getting what they need.”

The free testing in Jacksonville will happen Wednesday through Friday the week of April 13, rotating through the following communities: Brentwood, 761 Village Center Dr.; Hogan Creek, 1320 N. Broad St.; Twin Towers, 617-621 W. 44th St.; and Centennial Towers, 230 E. First St.

The latest data released by the Department of Health shows white patients make up 60 percent of hospitalizations due to COVID-19 in the state and black patients in Florida make up percent.

Dr. Leon Haley, vice president of UF Health Affairs and dean of the University of Florida College of Medicine, said data at the UF health system doesn’t reflect the racial disparities being tracked across the country right now.

“We haven’t quite seen what we’ve seen in Chicago, Milwaukee, in terms of a racial perspective, but that’s why we are out here, So we can learn more and hopefully put in some interventions,” Dr. Haley said. “There is literature that states in African-American populations, Hispanic populations there are higher rates of hypertension, diabetes, high-cholesterol.”

“African-Americans some of it is around access to healthcare, preventative healthcare on a regular basis. Some of it is around access to public health, clean drinking water. We’ve seen in certain cities where it’s lead-based," he added.

UF Health is also conducting a research study as a part of the free testing.

In a release from UF health, the health system said people who don’t have symptoms and don’t meet standard testing criteria can sign up for a UF research study where they will use a UF-developed COVID-19 test that is currently not FDA-approved.

“The purpose of the study is part of a valuable public health activity to identify people with early disease — those who have the virus but are not exhibiting symptoms — which can help guide recommendations to lessen the impact of the outbreak and, later, to identify when officials might be able to start lifting restrictions,” a UF health spokesperson said in a release.

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