Health

This Black Doctors Group Is Making COVID-19 Testing More Accessible

The Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium aims to provide free, accessible testing to hard-hit Black and brown communities in Philadelphia.

Two staff members of the consortium with Dr. Ala Stanford. | Courtesy of Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium
Two staff members of the consortium with Dr. Ala Stanford. | Courtesy of Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium

The coronavirus has hit Black communities across the U.S. so hard that the numbers have stopped doctors in their tracks. In Philadelphia, where 42% of the population is Black and 41% is white, Black people are nearly three times more likely than white people to have the coronavirus. An appalling 52% of COVID-19 deaths in the city have occurred among Black people.

Dr. Ala Stanford, a pediatric surgeon who grew up in North Philadelphia, could not simply stand by. She gathered colleagues and community members, as well as her personal supply of protective equipment and test kits, to form a group that would provide “barrier-free” COVID-19 testing.

Since March, the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium has tested more than 9,000 people in locations across the city of Philadelphia, including doctors, nurses, funeral home directors, local legislators, and faith leaders — all at no cost to the patients.

“Historically, Black people do not trust doctors in the health care system,” Stanford told NowThis. Stanford described examples that span decades: the unethical 40-year Tuskegee syphilis study that began in 1932; the use of the late Henrietta Lacks’ cancer cells without her consent; and medical experiments conducted on Black inmates in the Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia between the 1950s and 1970s. “I wanted to remove some of the mistrust by coming in as a face who was there only because we wanted to be there… just to say your life matters to me.”

Patients wait in line to get tested by members of the consortium. | Courtesy of Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium

Many patients who’ve accessed testing through the consortium had previously been turned away from hospitals and clinics for a myriad of reasons. They were denied testing because they didn’t have referrals, their primary physicians weren’t present at the site, they couldn’t come during weekday testing hours, they were required to have a state-issued ID — and the list goes on, according to Stanford. As a result, years of mistrust, underlying medical conditions, and racist policies compounded to disproportionately impact Black people in urban and suburban areas during the pandemic.

“We don’t require a referral. We don’t require you to have insurance. We test on the weekend. We test at night,” Stanford explained. “We did everything opposite from what the hospital was doing.”

Philadelphia hospitals received $579 million through the CARES Act in May. But Stanford said her conversations with hospital executives suggest they’ve used a significant portion of that funding to make up lost revenue, not to test vulnerable populations in hard-hit zip codes.

“The information was there, but I didn’t see any push from the hospitals in that area or the federally funded centers in that area of people doing anything,” Stanford recalled. “You have to acknowledge whomever is hurting most needs the most resources… We need action.”

Over the past four months, Stanford’s consortium has stepped in to offer COVID-19 tests in the parking lots of churches and mosques, at subway stations, in front of union halls, and more, attracting hundreds of patients each time the team sets up.

“She has brought that ethos and mindset to do what we’re doing as doctors and nurses and healers,” Rev. Marshall Mitchell told NowThis. As Stanford’s own pastor, Mitchell and his congregation sprang into action, volunteering, fundraising, and hosting the consortium’s efforts. “We’ve done everything that you’re supposed to do if you believe in something and say you believe in something. We’ve not just talked about it, but we’ve also just been about it.”
 

Consortium staff hold a discussion in the pews of a church. | Courtesy of Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium

It was a no-brainer for Stanford to partner with church leaders such as Mitchell. She described the Black church as “a pillar in the community.”

“The church has been Black people’s consistent sanctuary. It’s where they could retreat. It’s where they could plan and really strategize,” said Mitchell, whose Salem Baptist Church has over the decades heard from the likes of the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Rep. John Lewis. “If you extract the Black church from the Black experience… Black people have literally nowhere else to turn or go.”

Mitchell remarked that although many Black patients held reservations about the health care and political system, they were willing to put their trust into a group of Black strangers.

“My hope is that someday there will be parity and improvement for access and outcomes in health care, which are not race-driven,” Mitchell said. “Then I think we will become that more perfect union.”

Dr. Ala Stanford preps a patient for his COVID-19 test. | Courtesy of Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium

The consortium, which is staffed by approximately 50 people, recently began offering antibody tests as well. 

“If the one thing that African Americans may be able to do for their family members or friends… is give antibodies to help save a life, how empowering would that be?” Stanford said. As testing continues, the consortium is providing community members with information in the hopes that they take protective and life-saving measures.

In June, the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium received a $1.3 million grant from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, to be distributed over six months. But Stanford said the grant funds haven’t kicked in yet. While they wait, she and her fellow health practitioners are relying on donations — they’ve received more than $300,000 from a GoFundMe page Stanford created in April.

“It’s not enough to just be in the neighborhood,” Stanford said about the consortium’s work. “You have to be empathetic with your presence and you have to read beyond the checklist.”