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LA ramps up COVID testing in high-poverty neighborhoods, but confusion and problems persist

LA ramps up COVID testing in high-poverty neighborhoods, but confusion and problems persist

Picture of Jacqueline García
(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
A driver drops off a specimen bag into a collection bin at a COVID-19 testing center in South Los Angeles.
(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As COVID-19 cases skyrocket in Los Angeles County, officials are scrambling to make testing more widely available, especially in hard-hit communities of color, and to fix problems that have led to consumer complaints.

Although free testing has been available in the county, some areas have a waiting period of up to a week. People may get faster service at private clinics, where the cost for a test ranges from $100 to $300, but that doesn’t help many of those most in need of  testing. In the face of growing data showing that people of color and neighborhoods with higher rates of poverty have disproportionately high rates of COVID-19, county health officials recently announced a targeted strategy to expand testing capacity by over 65% in “hot spot” communities. And the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors committed $400,000 in financing for testing sites operated by the nonprofit Community Organized Relief Effort (CORE). The agency runs eight sites in the city of Los Angeles, including the largest one at Dodger Stadium.  

Los Angeles County has had over 192,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Aug. 3, and 4,692 deaths, according to the Department of Public Health.

Widespread testing got off to a slow start in Los Angeles, as in many places in the country, hobbling efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus and identify the communities at greatest risk. Because residents of affluent areas had more access to testing early in the pandemic, they reported higher infection rates than lower-income communities, said Dr. Efrain Talamantes, medical director for Institute for Health Equity at AltaMed Health Services, a large health care system in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

“Initially we started to see the trend, a lot more cases in Beverly Hills in West LA, and we weren’t seeing any cases in East LA or South Central.”

But that was because these latter areas were testing deserts by comparison.  While cases went undetected, the virus silently spread.

“If you have a testing desert, you don’t know you have (the virus), then you won’t isolate yourself,” he said. “You don’t know how to protect yourself and you spread it to others, you spread it to your colleagues at work, to your family.”

Even when testing was available, the process could be frustrating for some people. Highland Park resident Kristen Schaffer made an appointment online for herself, her wife and two children in May. When they arrived at a drive-through testing center in Lincoln Heights, operated by the city of Los Angeles and CORE, she found the scene to be chaotic and confusing.

“There was a woman yelling at three cars at the time and I wasn’t sure if I was driving the right way,” Schaffer said. “Then someone just hands you the kit and you have to do it yourself.”

Schaffer and her family completed the swabs. Days later she received her 10-year-old daughter’s result by email, which read, “Needs new sample.” Then the other test results came back with the same note. Schaffer and her family wondered: Did they do the test wrong? Were the tests effective? There was no explanation. “They just said it is inconclusive and nothing else,” explained Schaffer.

Inconclusive results are not common, the Los Angeles Department of Health Services said in an email, “but can happen when the collection fluid leaks, ​the sample was not sufficient, or the patient’s information was incorrectly recorded during the registration process.”

Boyle Heights resident Glenys Bronfield got tested at the same Lincoln Heights location and was told she would receive her results within a few days. But after a month without a response, she tried to contact the center online, only to learn that her information had expired. Although, she wasn’t presenting COVID-19 symptoms when she took the test, she said if she needs to be tested in the future, she will look for a center staffed by medical professionals.  

Jennie Carreon, assistant to the vice president of civic engagement at AltaMed, said patients have arrived at her system’s clinics to get tested, complaining of similar experiences elsewhere

She said they have found out that in some locations health care professionals do not run the testing sites. For example, in Pico Rivera, she said, the site is run by volunteers such as city staff, traffic officers or park rangers.

The website for US Health Fairs.org, another test site operator, shows Pico Rivera’s tests are being handed out by volunteers trained by US Health Fairs.org.

US Health Fairs.org and CORE encourage people to volunteer at these sites as long as  they are in good health, not infected with coronavirus or at high-risk of serious COVID-19 complications, and meet certain requirements. Once they receive training, they are tasked with preparing test sites, checking in people with appointments, distributing tests and guiding people through self-administered tests. A safety officer is in charge of ensuring volunteers follow protocol.

Andrea Garcia, spokesperson for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, said the city has delivered wide-scale testing for free to Angelenos thanks its partnership with CORE and the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD).

“LAFD oversees all testing operations, while staff and volunteers from CORE operate the sites,” explained Garcia. “Everyone receives extensive training about how to safely guide individuals in self-administering the test.”

Supervisor Hilda Solis has been advocating for expanded testing in her district, which covers East and Southeast Los Angeles County. About 90% of the population is Latino and more than 45,000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed to date. Some have complained that the early testing sites, including one at San Gabriel Valley Airport in El Monte and another at Cal State, were difficult to access, but more have opened in the most impacted areas, including a site in Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights.  Most testing sites in the district have the capacity to test up to 600 people a day. 

Testing is available for everyone, regardless of immigration status or medical insurance.

“So long as COVID-19 continues to spread among communities in Southeast Los Angeles County, we will ramp up our response by expanding access to COVID-19 testing,” Solis said. “Testing is critical to flattening the curve of COVID-19, particularly in areas where residents endure significant disparities from the health crisis.”

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