Saving grace

Kensington church becomes second COVID-19 test site for underserved community

COVID testing site
On Monday, May 4, Kensington will have its second COVID-19 testing site outside Visitation BVM Church. | Image: Kerith Gabriel

Now people in Kensington, many of them experiencing homelessness and addiction, will have a second coronavirus testing site to serve their needs.

Earlier this week, a COVID-19 testing facility opened Kensington in a tent next to Rock Ministries, which is coordinating with Esperanza Health Center to provide walk-in testing Monday through Friday from 2-4 p.m. to people showing symptoms, healthcare and essential workers, people over 50, and people with chronic health conditions. 

Beginning May 4, a second walk-in testing site will open at Visitation BVM Church at the corner of Kensington and Lehigh Avenues. The site’s hours will be every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday from 1 p.m-3 p.m., with no insurance or referrals necessary, as a way of responding to the city’s goal of expanding testing and trying to reach a particularly vulnerable population.

“We have been working with Father [Francis] Mulvaney at Visitation, who is very excited to be able to support us and the community to increase testing efforts in Kensington,” said Laura Bamford, a staff physician at Philadelphia FIGHT and medical director of Clinica Bienestar, a comprehensive HIV primary care clinic in Kensington. “We really haven’t been advertising it [the opening of the new site] because we really want it to be community-based. We don’t want folks coming in from outside that community to get tested because they have other options.”

Visitation BVM Church on Kensington and Lehigh Avenues will open as a second site in the underserved community for those experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. | Image: Kerith Gabriel

FIGHT has adapted its testing criteria to better serve a community experiencing homelessness and opioid use disorder, based on conversations with Prevention Point Philadelphia, a syringe exchange that also provides an array of other social and medical services in Kensington. FIGHT has also adapted testing requirements to bring them up-to-date with expanded CDC guidelines that came out last week, Bamford said. 

If a person has a cough, fever, shortness of breath, sore throat, chills, muscle pain, headache, or loss of taste or smell sensation, in addition to being over age 50, or having an underlying medical condition, or being homeless/unstably housed or living in a congregate setting, he or she will be eligible for testing at the Visitation site. In addition, health care workers and first responders who present symptoms may get tested.

Bamford said that it is important to note that people experiencing homelessness or who are unstably housed or who live in congregate settings have a difficult time social distancing, putting them at higher risk for contracting coronavirus. She also said that COVID-19 may look different in people who are using opioids since the drug use might mask a fever, for instance.

“Prevention Point has supported us with some additional screening questions and educational materials specific to COVID-19 in individuals with opioid use disorder,” Bamford said.

Unlike the COVID-19 site at Rock Ministries, the city is not involved with the setup of Kensington’s second site at Visitation BVM Church. | Image: Kerith Gabriel

FIGHT has made this information available and will write a person’s date to follow-up at the site on small cards that they will slip into lanyards people can wear around their necks and protect inside their clothing, Bamford said.

The city is not involved in operating the Visitation site beyond providing some personal protective equipment, according to the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. FIGHT is supplying the testing kits. FIGHT will also offer on-site counseling with people who present for testing about how to know when to go to the hospital or call 9-1-1, for instance, Bamford said.

The site will be tented on the concrete playground on the Lehigh side of Visitation. Those seeking testing will walk in through one gate and exit through another, providing proper social distancing, Mulvaney said.

“You’re talking about a population that has a lot of pre-existing medical conditions. Their daily life is one of survival. It really is. So they’re often physically sick, medically sick. They don’t have money. They often don’t have insurance. Just knowing whether they are or are not positive could help them get easy access to other services.”

Father Francis Mulvaney, priest at Visitation BVM Church in Kensington

“This is a high-risk population on Kensington Avenue in particular, as we know it is associated with opioid use and homelessness,” Mulvaney said. “A lot of people were homeless before COVID-19 — even more so now.

“You’re talking about a population that has a lot of pre-existing medical conditions,” Mulvaney continued. “I mean their daily life is one of survival. It really is. So they’re often physically sick, medically sick. They don’t have money. They often don’t have insurance. Just knowing whether they are or are not positive could help them get easy access to other services.

“It’s serving people that are oftentimes underserved,” Mulvaney said. “It’s part of our mission, and frankly the physical location, we’ve been blessed with that.”

City spokeswoman Kelly Confrancisco wrote in an email to PW that Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley has “repeatedly expressed a desire to increase testing throughout the city, and FIGHT responded by working to open a site to provide testing.” The health department will receive results from the Visitation lab tests, just as it does for all Philadelphia residents at every testing site, so the counts will be included in the city’s daily reporting, Confrancisco added.

If people test positive at the Kensington sites, or at any other sites in the city, and meet the eligibility criteria for admission to the Holiday Inn Express quarantine site in Center City, they will be considered for admission, according to the health department. 

Rock Ministries along Kensington Avenue became the first COVID-19 testing site in the neighborhood at the end of April.| Image: Kerith Gabriel

In addition to the two community-based testing sites in Kensington, the city’s health department, along with the Health Federation of Philadelphia, is working with Federally Qualified Health Centers across the city, with the city providing testing supplies and personal protective equipment for the 12 new testing sites in other underserved neighborhoods. These sites must make testing available three days a week and preferably five days a week and provide the Department of Public Health regular data of the number of people tested.

A city-run testing location in Center City also continues to serve those who are over 50 and are displaying COVID-19 symptoms, as well as health care workers who are displaying symptoms consistent with COVID-19. The site is available by appointment only, and a referral is required. Those who meet the criteria and want a test can call (267) 491-5870 to obtain a referral.

There are also more than 20 private testing sites across the city run by hospital systems and other organizations.

At the time of this report, at least 15,137 people had tested positive and 638 had succumbed to COVID-19-related deaths in the city, with 1,812 COVID-19 patients in hospitals throughout the region, including in Philadelphia, according to the daily press briefing.

Bamford, who has accepted a position as the medical director of the HIV clinic at the University of California San Diego and will soon be moving, said getting the Visitation testing site was particularly important to her.

“I’m leaving FIGHT and Philadelphia at the end of May, so I was stressing that I couldn’t be at Clinica Bienestar and couldn’t see my patients,” Bamford said. “So I feel like this way I am able to continue to support this community that has been so important to me for so long.”

If people want to volunteer at the new Visitation testing site, they should reach out to Kim Chiaramonte at kchiaramonte@fight.org.

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    Courtenay Harris Bond is a Philadelphia-area freelance journalist, who covers behavioral health, social justice, the opioid epidemic, among other topics.