It’s getting harder to reach people who have not yet received a COVID-19 vaccine or don’t know where to get a free test.
The city of Phoenix is committed to fixing that.
The Phoenix City Council approved on July 1 additional funding and agreements with local community health providers and labs to provide more vaccination and testing opportunities in underserved ZIP codes with more hesitancy and even more risk of COVID-19 exposure. The funding comes from the federal American Rescue Plan Act and will not exceed $2.5 million.
The Equality Health Foundation has been partnered with the city since the start of the pandemic and is one organization that will benefit from this additional funding and an extended contract.
This effort goes hand in hand with Equality Health’s mission to break down medical barriers for all Phoenicians, according to foundation President Tomás León.
“When we saw what was happening with this pandemic and communities of color, we knew that it was going to disproportionately impact populations that were already experiencing disparities in health and access to resources to support them,” he said. “That’s what was happening when we looked at the testing, there were not enough testing sites and opportunities in underserved communities of color. A couple of months ago we started addressing disparities in access to COVID-19 vaccines that we felt were emerging in terms of neighborhoods that have been overexposed and low vaccine participation.”
While León said he’s seen a marked improvement since the city and community health organizations got involved, the road ahead will be tough. Vaccine hesitancy and government mistrust is high in many communities of color, and those who want the vaccine have likely already had it.
“This is where the really hard work begins to try to reach the 30% to 40% of the people that still need accurate, trusted information from influencers who they trust, continue to educate them on why it’s important to get a vaccine, and to provide them with information on the facts, the risks and the benefits,” he said.
While the vaccine is widely available to those who want it, the city and its roster of health providers say testing continues to be integral to eradicating the coronavirus.
“Prevention, vaccines — that’s how we’re gonna get to communitywide immunity,” said León. “So testing becomes even more important now. While we’re trying to get everyone that wants a vaccine to get the vaccine, we need to continue to gauge the spread of the virus. That Delta variant is going to put a lot of these communities that are under-vaccinated at risk.”
Sonora Quest Laboratories, one of the city’s testing partners, echoed his statements and applauded a commitment to testing as case numbers remain high. Sonora Quest has performed nearly 3 million tests in Arizona as of July 1.
“As variants continue to grow and an estimated two-thirds of people infected show no symptoms, testing is more important than ever,” according to Christina Noble, Sonora Quest’s chief growth officer. “Case numbers remain high, and providers still need to identify individuals who have contracted the virus so they can receive proper treatment and care.”
“Many experts believe that COVID is unlikely to ever disappear completely,” she continued. “Even if the virus continues to spread only at low levels, it will be important to keep tabs on it — it is important to public health.”
Lawanda Mann, managing owner of Family Tree Healthcare in Phoenix, agreed testing should take precedence as the virus spreads and vaccine participation halts.
“People get relaxed, they don’t wash their hands they stop social distancing they stop wearing masks, the governor lifted all these bans,” she said. “Guess what, guys? There’s a new strain out there. People are still getting it.”
Mann, who is a nurse practitioner, noted that those who have been vaccinated can still contract COVID-19 and shouldn’t be lulled into “a false sense of security.”
Mann started Family Tree nearly four years ago to provide medical services to underserved zip codes in Phoenix, and began offering free COVID tests early in the pandemic. She said the building constantly had a line wrapped around it before the health care organization began participating in community pop-up events. Mann and her small team can also go out to test or administer vaccines for 10 or more people together.
“[The city has] worked really hard and they’ve been very diligent in trying to get testing and vaccines into not only the communities of color but lower socioeconomic communities,” she said. “They have provided us all the tools they need and just kind of given us the green light to do what we were doing on our own for free.”
While this is a good start, Mann said there’s a lot more work to be done in reaching underserved communities.
“I think there’s always more that can be done,” she said. “I think you have to start somewhere.”