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Austin Public Health addresses testing equity with walk-up friendly mobile testing sites

Thursday, July 2, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

Around 11,000 Covid-19 tests were conducted by Austin Public Health, Austin Regional Clinic and CommUnityCare last week, but demand is rising fast and drive-thru testing sites are being overwhelmed.

To manage the situation, Austin Public Health is now directing testing resources toward communities that need them most and asking individuals with access to medical care to avoid using free testing sites to free up resources for those without other options.

“We have to make sure that our indigent population, our people that are uninsured, our people that don’t have any source of money to be able to pay for the test, (are) able to come to us,” said Stephanie Hayden, director of Austin Public Health.

Despite having a positivity rate much lower than African Americans and Hispanics, whites accounted for more than half of all drive-thru tests in the last week. As Chief Equity Officer Brion Oaks told Travis County last month, drive-thru testing can present a disadvantage to households in communities of color that more often lack access to a private vehicle.

“This is why we needed to identify the resources for walk-up or home testing so that we can provide an option for folks who can’t access that drive-thru appropriately,” Austin Public Health interim Medical Director Dr. Mark Escott told City Council this week.

On Monday, July 6, the department will open pop-up testing centers in Dove Springs, Givens and Rundberg that will accept people who arrive on foot as well as in a vehicle. The mobile sites will be run with assistance by imaware, a Houston-based digital health platform, which will also be providing in-home testing services.

The department has so far only offered testing services to individuals inside a closed vehicle, which is intended to serve as a personal protective equipment barrier for medical personnel. Austin Regional Clinic and CVS, which has approximately five testing locations in Travis County, are also reserving services for people in cars.

The city has so far directed those without access to a car to one of several eastern crescent testing locations operated by CommUnityCare, whose testing is via drive-thru by default but is also available for walk-up service. According to Monica Saavedra with CommUnityCare, people on foot or in a car are given the same level of service at their facilities, and both are free of cost.

“The process is the same whether you drive up or walk up,” Saavedra told the Austin Monitor. “We are focused on providing free testing to individuals that are uninsured or don’t have access to a medical provider. However, if a patient who is insured comes to one of our testing sites, we ask that they provide their insurance information to us and we bill the insurance directly, without a copay.”

In a prior attempt to assist people without access to a car, Austin Public Health initiated a pilot on June 18 to provide in-home testing. Anyone unable to get to a testing center in a car can call the department’s nurse line at 512-972-5560 and schedule a test.

The department is asking anyone who thinks they may have Covid-19 and who has health insurance to contact their insurance or primary care provider to determine where they can find access to a test. In the meantime, people should stay home as much as possible, especially if they have reason to believe they could be positive for the virus.

“We are in Covid-19 season now,” Escott said. “And similar to flu season, if you have flu symptoms during flu season you probably have flu; in the midst of Covid-19 season, if you have the symptoms, you have to assume that you have it and you can’t wait on a test to tell you if you need to protect yourself or your family.”

Reminding the public of the possibility of another shutdown if the daily hospitalization average continues to rise, Escott pleaded with the community to observe the July 4 weekend from inside their homes and help keep the city below a stage 5 (red) level alert.

“We do not want to get to the point where every member of our community knows somebody personally who has been hospitalized or died from Covid-19, and that’s exactly where we’re headed right now.”

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