Free COVID-19 testing began this week in Richmond and Henrico County neighborhoods with a high concentration of uninsured residents.

The Richmond and Henrico County Health Districts are leading the initiative aimed at identifying positive cases in predominately African American and Latino communities, where officials say residents are less likely to have access to health care and face higher risk of serious complications if infected.

Though incomplete, Virginia’s demographic data on positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 shows the virus has disproportionately affected African Americans in Richmond.

Black residents make up roughly 48% of the city’s population but have accounted for 60% of cases, 77% of hospitalizations and all 10 deaths caused by the virus to date, according to data made available by the Virginia Department of Health.

“Uninsured folks have not had the opportunity to pursue testing to the degree that people with insurance have,” said Dr. Danny Avula, director of the Richmond and Henrico Health Districts. “We know that people who are going to have the most severe consequences of getting infected are elderly residents of color, who have a higher rate of underlying conditions.”

Among the reasons thought to be driving the disparity are underlying health concerns that are more prevalent in low-income neighborhoods, like diabetes and high blood pressure.

While public health officials have advised people to stay at home, many who work a job that pays an hourly wage don’t have the luxury of telecommuting. That increases a person’s risk of getting infected, Avula said, and by extension, the risk to those around them.

On Wednesday, people lined up in a parking lot outside of the leasing office of the Southwood Apartments in South Richmond to wait for a test. Most wore masks. All were encouraged to remain at least 6 feet from others.

A team of health district officials, urgent care nurses and other volunteers screened attendees, asking whether they had any telltale symptoms of the virus: a cough, runny nose, shortness of breath or fever. If a person did, staffers swabbed their nasal cavity, gathering samples to send to a laboratory for testing. Results will be available in three to five days.

“Oh my gosh it was horrible,” said Tameaka Jackson, recounting the feeling of having the swab plunged several inches up each of her nostrils.

Jackson, a 39-year-old behavior specialist at VCU Medical Center, had surgery last month then fell ill for three weeks with what she suspected was the virus. During that time, her fever hovered at 101 degrees. She still hasn’t returned to work.

Jackson said she believes she caught the virus while in the hospital, but she didn’t know for sure. Although she was feeling better Wednesday, she wanted confirmation one way or the other.

“I don’t have any symptoms or anything now, but I wanted to know whether I was a carrier as a precaution,” she said.

Peace of mind drew Yvonne Williams, who said she had suffered a long bout of shortness of breath that scared her.

When it didn’t subside, the 58-year-old followed her doctor’s orders and stopped delivering groceries through Instacart. The on-demand service was her sole source of income, but she feared it put her in harm’s way because it required her to interact with so many strangers.

When she heard about the free testing, she urged friends and family members to take advantage.

“A lot of people aren’t taking heed to this,” Williams said. “They need to get out here and get tested.”

Wednesday’s event in South Richmond was the second on-site event so far. The first — at the Woodman West Apartments in Glen Allen — was cut two hours short Tuesday by rain and a lack of turnout, said George Jones, a spokesman for the health district.

Twenty-two people were tested at the Henrico complex on the first day. Sixty-nine people were tested Wednesday in South Richmond. Avula said they have capacity to test 150 to 200 people at each event. Private lab testing for uninsured people can cost about $100.

The health district distributed fliers in each of the first two neighborhoods and worked with tenant organizations to spread the word, Jones said.

Since announcing the initiative last week, officials have not released a full schedule of testing sites, in part because the locations have been in flux, Avula said. However, that may change in the coming days as the district reassess its marketing strategy, he said.

Residents who are interested in a test are encouraged to set up an appointment by calling the health district’s hotline at (804) 205-3501. Walk-ups are also accepted on-site.

mrobinson@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6734

Twitter: @__MarkRobinson

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