Churches can help stop the spread of the coronavirus by offering free COVID-19 testing
Workers at Convent Avenue Baptist Church offer free coronavirus testing for people in their West Harlem neighborhood. The five-day effort in May has served as a model for faith-based communities to help close the racial gap in access to testing. Photo courtesy of Convent Avenue Baptist Church
Inspired by the success of a program at Convent Avenue Baptist Church in West Harlem, a national nonprofit hopes to encourage other congregations to get involved in overcoming the logistical, emotional and financial barriers to COVID-19 testing in underserved communities.
On a sunny day in May, months after Convent Avenue Baptist Church had switched to remote services, a line of socially distanced people wrapped around the block. Among them was the Rev. Dr. Jesse Williams, senior pastor of the congregation, waiting to be tested for COVID-19.
Williams had agreed for his church -- located in New York City’s West Harlem neighborhood -- to serve as a testing site over a five-day period during the height of the city’s pandemic.
Spearheaded by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office, with medical and logistical support from New York’s largest health care provider, the partnership aimed to bring testing to underserved communities that were struggling disproportionately under the devastating impact of the coronavirus.
The West Harlem neighborhood that is home to Convent Avenue Baptist was among the hardest-hit communities in Manhattan. Its residents are predominantly Black and Hispanic -- groups whose members are twice as likely to lose a battle against the virus as their white counterparts.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City this spring, the church was losing three to four congregants a week.
“I have two parishioners who are funeral directors, and one of them called me just to talk to me as his pastor,” said Williams, who has led the congregation since 2007. “He’d gotten over 50 bodies in less than two days, and it was beginning to take an emotional toll on him.”
It was around this time that Williams got a call from Clement James, the director of faith-based outreach in the New York governor’s office. In response to the heavy toll inflicted by the virus on Black and brown communities -- and their limited access to testing -- the governor’s office proposed setting up testing sites within faith-based groups, bringing the test to the communities that needed it.
“We saw the numbers going up heavily in the Black and brown community,” said James, who reached out to pastors in and around New York City. “We chose houses of worship because we know where people will go. People are scared of the test, but they feel safe in their church.”
Stop the Spread
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Partnering in a broad effort
The community-based testing model James proposed to Convent Avenue Baptist and other congregations leveraged state and federal resources and funding; a health care provider to conduct setup, procedures, cleaning, and laboratory services; and faith-based host sites to spread the word and bring in parishioners and other residents of the neighborhood.
The success of this partnership caught the attention of Stop the Spread, a national nonprofit established in March with the purpose of helping underserved communities battle the coronavirus.
Stop the Spread is helping faith-based and other trusted groups around the country replicate the model and bring testing to the communities that need it most.
And for those congregations who are struggling with COVID-19 and would like support to serve as a host site, Stop the Spread is able to help.
The organization was founded by Kenneth Chenault, the chairman and managing director at General Catalyst and former chairman and chief executive of American Express, and Rachel Romer Carlson, the chief executive and co-founder of Guild Education.
The national nonprofit aims to bridge public-private partnerships to thwart the global pandemic and instill a sense of duty within the private industry.
As its founders wrote in a New York Times op-ed last March: “How our businesses, chief executives and other corporate leaders respond now will play a large part in determining whether we can defeat the coronavirus without paying a huge price in lives and national wealth.”
Since then, more than 1,400 business leaders have joined Stop the Spread, which mobilizes the private sector to get the right resources to where they are needed most.
In addition to partnering with the private sector to assist businesses positioned to meet critical needs in combating the pandemic, Stop the Spread identifies promising initiatives and helps bring those models to scale.
The initiative at Convent Avenue Baptist and other houses of worship in New York piqued their interest in community-based testing and, more specifically, in partnering with faith communities to close the racial gap in access to testing.
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“We’re happy to work with anyone wanting to set up a resource like this,” said Mackenzie Strafford, a senior research associate at the nonprofit, adding that Stop the Spread has testing partners within their network to guarantee shorter turnaround time on diagnostic and antigen tests.
It also helps community groups wishing to set up hyperlocal test sites obtain funding from a variety of sources, including state and federal grants, and uses its network to identify suppliers willing to donate resources.
For New York’s first wave of community-based testing, James identified 24 houses of worship to serve as host sites. The third member of the partnership was Northwell Health, the state’s largest health care system, which used money it had received from FEMA to support the initiative. In May, Northwell received $795 million in federal hotspot funding.
Northwell personnel inspected each of the sites, set up testing locations and socially distant waiting areas, and provided medical and cleaning personnel for each of the testing days, which alternated diagnostic and antibody testing.
Scattered among those sites, 25,000 people were tested in that first wave, James said. By mid-July, with the addition of other sites, the number of people tested had risen to more than 40,000.
Within weeks after receiving the call from the governor’s office, Convent Avenue Baptist was set up to host five days of COVID-19 testing, Williams said.
On May 20, 2020, the church, which had been operating remotely during the pandemic, opened its doors.
“It happened very quickly. Appropriately so, because at the time, New York was really a hot spot for the pandemic,” Williams said. “Our numbers were skyrocketing, affecting people in our community in an inordinate way. We wanted to get [the testing] up and going as quickly as we could.”
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Since then, as the spread of the virus slowed in New York and sped up around the country, other community groups have stepped up to provide COVID-19 testing for vulnerable communities.
Stop the Spread, for example, is working with a group of historically Black colleges and universities to bring personal protective equipment and testing to a network of schools throughout the South.
“What makes the [Convent Avenue Baptist] model successful is taking a trusted location within a mile walking distance [as a test site],” Strafford said.
“Our role is to help elevate this work and to broadcast all of the great things we’ve seen coming out of it. We’d love more engagement from faith-based communities.”
Eliminating the barriers to testing -- logistical, emotional and financial
For members of Convent Avenue Baptist’s 3,000-strong congregation, getting tested outside their community was a challenge. Many do not have a car -- or a driver’s license, for that matter -- and wanted to avoid the infection risk of taking public transportation to a clinic or test site. In a neighborhood where 20% of residents live below the poverty line, the logistical barrier alone severely limited access to testing.
But there was also an emotional barrier to testing for Williams’ congregation. In his community, Williams said, there is widespread mistrust of the health care system.
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“If they experience racism or any type of injustice in the cultural context that we’re in, the faith community is a safe place where they can find a community of people who will fight for them,” he said, adding that to bridge that mistrust, it was essential for his parishioners to see that he got tested along with them.
“I went on the first day so the whole community saw it. I met all the workers from Northwell Health. I think it said a lot to the community about the partnership, about how important this was.”
Given the significant number of asymptomatic carriers, knowing one’s status is critical to stopping the spread of the virus.
The more quickly people have access to testing services, the more quickly they can isolate themselves from family members and friends and avoid the spread.
Convent Avenue Baptist has a reputation beyond its congregation as a place of justice and love -- providing food staples for those in need, for example, and speaking out against police violence -- allowing it to draw in people from the neighborhood.
And while the church building remains closed for now, under normal circumstances Convent Avenue Baptist also provides monthly testing for people who want to learn their HIV status.
“People feel more comfortable coming to a place where racism, sexism or ageism is not going to cause them to be ill-treated,” Williams said.
The third barrier to testing for Williams’ congregants was financial. But the testing at the community-based sites was free to everyone -- not just church members -- and no insurance was required. At a time when businesses were starting to fold and many people were losing their jobs and their health insurance, this was a critical step in making testing available to all.
“People were trying to figure out how to feed their families,” Williams said. “The fact that we were able to do this for free, without having to outlay anything financially, was major.”
Getting the word out
They didn’t have much time to promote the testing days, but Convent Avenue Baptist got the word out. They made flyers that church members passed around the community. They promoted the event on Facebook and YouTube, and during weekly online services and Bible study. They contacted people by phone and encouraged the congregation to spread the word.
It worked. Between May 20 and May 24, 1,500 people were tested at Convent Avenue Baptist. One by one, they filed into the basement of the church, which under normal circumstances is home to a senior center.
Over the five days, Northwell Health alternated COVID-19 diagnostic and antibody testing. And while a positive result for antibodies does not guarantee protection from future COVID-19 infection, the test can help determine the prevalence of the virus within the community.
By the second day of testing, said Requithelia Allen, who is a member of the congregation as well as the director of the church’s senior program, the line for testing reached 141st Street.
“I walked the line every hour or two to say hello and to thank people for waiting,” Allen said. Every now and then, someone got tired and was escorted to a seat inside the church. Overall, though, the line moved fairly quickly, and the mood was almost social.
“Some of our seniors were relieved to be outside,” Allen said, adding that many had been cooped up for months, depending on family members or deliveries for supplies. “It was a good morale booster for the community.”
Replicating the model
Since then, Williams has been celebrating other waves of community-based testing, sharing notes with other pastors who participated as host sites in the program that began with a call from the governor’s office.
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And with support from the public and private sectors, the model is spreading.
James, who enlisted the test sites, traveled to Savannah, Georgia, this summer as part of a volunteer team from the governor’s office. In response to a call for help from Savannah Mayor Van Johnson, the team went down with 20 doctors and health care professionals, personal protective equipment, and testing materials to conduct eight days of community-based testing.
New York State has also helped other cities -- including Houston and Atlanta -- with COVID-19 testing initiatives, fulfilling a promise made by the governor.
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“When we were at our worst point with this virus in New York we [had] volunteers from all across the country come to help fight this dreaded disease, and now that we are past our apex we are ready to help any city or state with whatever they need,” Cuomo said in a statement released before his departure for Savannah.
Williams is also open to speaking with other religious communities who want to learn more about the work that turned Convent Avenue Baptist Church into a COVID-19 test site.
“If I can help other pastors become involved and replicate what we did, I think it’s better off for New York or anywhere in the country,” Williams said. “We’ve always seen ourselves as having a mission in the community. That mission is to try to bring about the best, most loving presence of God -- however we can do that.”
Are you interested in learning more about how Stop the Spread can help your congregation set up a community-based test site? Contact Mackenzie Strafford at firstname.lastname@example.org.