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Vans hit the road to administer free COVID tests in Phoenix’s underserved communities

Although vaccinations are underway, experts say it's still important to test for COVID-19 to...
Although vaccinations are underway, experts say it's still important to test for COVID-19 to identify hot spots and variants. Phoenix sends two vans into communities to provide free COVID-19 testing to those who might not otherwise have easy access.(Cronkite News)
Published: Apr. 20, 2021 at 5:43 AM MST|Updated: Apr. 19, 2021 at 12:03 PM MST
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PHOENIX – The city is partnering with health care companies to send vans into underserved communities to provide free, on-the-spot COVID-19 tests for people who might not otherwise have access.

Even though about 1.5 million Maricopa County residents have been vaccinated with at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, health advocates warn that now is not the time to ease up on preventative measures, including testing.

The number of COVID-19 tests being administered in the United States has been dropping since January, according to data from Johns Hopkins University and Atlantic magazine’s COVID Tracking Project.

However, experts say testing remains crucial to help control the spread of the virus and track new variants.

“While the public may view vaccination as a priority right now, and it is a priority, widespread testing still is essential for infection control,” Romney Humphries, an infectious disease expert with Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said during a recent media briefing by the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

“If you are experiencing symptoms if you have been exposed to somebody who has symptoms – even though it feels like maybe things are slowing down a bit with this pandemic – it still is really important to go in and be tested,” Humphries said. “That will help us track the real impact: Are we truly seeing a reduction in cases? And also it will help us … track the emergence of these variants of the virus, which are really important for us to understand.”

Phoenix’s two mobile testing vans, funded with money from the federal CARES Act, offer free COVID-19 antigen testing with rapid results to anyone, regardless of whether they have health insurance. Van No. 1 – outfitted with a foldable workstation, refrigerator and generator – focuses on underserved neighborhoods, while Van No. 2 targets areas considered hot spots or that have more COVID-19 cases.

Felissa Washington-Smith, assistant public works director for Phoenix, said the vans had been to churches, gyms, grocery stores, parks and senior centers, among other locations.

“We have administered over 100,000 tests just in six months, which is a really good accomplishment,” she said.

Sunrise Stockman, 44, got tested recently when one of the mobile testing vans stopped at Pilgrim’s Rest Baptist Church on East Jefferson Street.

“I think it’s amazing,” she said. “It’s such a benefit to the community to know that if I’m going to see family, which is what I’m doing, to know beforehand that I’m not going to infect anybody or make anybody sick. It’s a great gift to the community.”

Medical partners in the effort are Vincere Cancer Center in Scottsdale and Premier Labs Solutions in Phoenix.

Vincere medical staff manage the operations of Van No. 1, scheduling site locations and appointments. The van operates from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. five days a week.

“The people we were testing in low-income areas, they didn’t have access to computers, they didn’t have access to phones,” said Dr. Vershalee Shukla, co-founder of Vincere Cancer Center. “And so this would allow us to give their results on site, and so that they could quarantine and know what was going on.”

Van No. 2 operates three days a week, and medical staff at Premier Lab Solutions work with city staff to determine which “hot spots” to hit.

“People throughout the city need to be able to access convenient testing, especially those people who rely on public transportation,” Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said earlier this year when announcing the launch of the second van. “These free tests will make it easier for residents to keep their families healthy and safe.”

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Close to 9 million COVID-19 tests have been conducted statewide since the pandemic was declared in March 2020, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. As of April 16, the state has seen 852,570 positive cases and 17,153 deaths.

So far, 37% of Arizonans – about 2.6 million people – have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Shukla said she has seen a drop-off in testing firsthand, mirroring national numbers. In December, her staff was testing nearly 2,000 people daily. Now the daily number has plunged to 300 to 400.

“With schools reopening, variants – there’s so much unknown … so it’s just interesting to see what will happen,” she said. “The city is still protecting the testing … just in case people need it.”

Washington-Smith said the city plans to continue deploying the mobile testing vans through June 30. To learn more about where the vans will be and when go to the city’s website. There is also a stationary testing site in Maryvale Park near Indian School and 51st Avenue.

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