Sonoma County health advocates distribute 120,000 free rapid COVID-19 tests to low-income and Latino families
Hoping to blunt the disproportionate impact of another winter surge of COVID-19, a coalition of local health advocates is distributing more than 100,000 rapid tests to disadvantaged Latino and low-income families in Sonoma County.
The effort comes at a critical time when residents across Sonoma County are gearing up for Christmas and New Year’s gatherings, and the threat of a new, more transmissible COVID-19 variant is quickly emerging.
“We know that this omicron variant is coming at the absolute worst time,” said Dr. Panna Lossy, founder of IsoCare Network, a local nonprofit that has helped struggling families isolate and quarantine safely.
“We are really trying to empower everyone to get as much information as possible, and help people be safer during this really dangerous time,” Lossy said. “The people in Sonoma County who have been most impacted by this pandemic over and over again have been Latinx residents and low-income, essential workers and their families.”
The local effort was already underway when President Joe Biden on Tuesday said the government would buy a half-billion rapid coronavirus tests and distribute them free to Americans, part of his administration’s response amid a surge of new cases from the highly contagious omicron variant.
Lossy, whose organization is part of the local collaborative, said over-the-counter antigen tests, such as Abbott’s BinaxNow and the Ellume COVID-19 Home Test, are an important tool in helping control the pandemic. But she said the cost of these tests, about $25 for a two-test kit, can be prohibitive for low-income residents.
Lossy and others involved in the distribution effort are targeting underserved populations with the highest rates of COVID-19 infections, as well as those in congregate living environments and large families. Other groups include people who plan to gather for faith-based activities and those involved with organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
“We’re really focusing, from an equity lens, on those who may have increased barriers related to costs,” said Dr. Jason Cunningham, CEO of West County Health Centers, a key partner in the collaboration.
Cunningham said the tests, 120,000 of them, are professional grade and come from the state Department of Public Health. He said West County Health Centers obtained a federal waiver to distribute the tests to community-based organizations across the county.
Unlike rapid tests purchased at local pharmacies, the state-provided tests come in boxes of 40 tests per box kit with only one bottle of chemical reagent. Cunningham and Lossy said that poses a problem in the distribution effort, and steps must be taken to ensure that those who receive them have sufficient testing needs.
That could be large families or groups that plan to gather during the holidays or attend an event as a large group. For families, Lossy said the minimum requirement is that they have at least four members and be low-income.
“We really want to encourage people to use them now and not hoard them,” Lossy said, adding that the 120,000 tests have an expiration date of Jan. 13.
Aside from West County Health Centers and IsoCare Network, the other key partners in the distribution effort are CURA Project and the Healthcare Foundation. Assisting in the distribution are numerous churches of the Santa Rosa Catholic Diocese and other denominations, as well as groups including Redwood Empire Food Bank, Comida Para Todos, the Graton Day Labor Center, Petaluma People Services and River to Coast Child Services.
On Monday afternoon, Redwood Empire Food Bank distributed test kits with food boxes to low-income families at Martin Luther King Park in Santa Rosa.
Allison Goodwin, director of programs for the food bank, said families are asked during the food distribution sign-up if they want a test kit. Those who accept a test kit are instructed on how to use them and told of the expiration date.
“They have to understand that they really are the facilitator in their environment or household that makes sure everyone gets tested,” Goodwin said. The food bank received 2,000 tests, or 52 boxes, and plans to distribute all of them by Wednesday, she said.
Mario Castillo-Guido, one of the founders of food pantry Comida Para Todos, or Food for All, has already distributed 85 box kits to families in Sonoma Valley. He’s reached out to area residents through social media and has been flooded with requests.
“I’ve been getting people who say they can’t find them at the store or they’re very expensive,” he said, adding that he only had 15 boxes left.
To ensure that the test kits are not wasted, Castillo-Guido’s organization has been setting up ad hoc testing sites in neighborhoods and apartment complexes, where one or two people are responsible for administering the tests and ensuring that they’re used properly. He said it’s a form of empowering local residents to take charge of their health needs.