If COVID-19 is a test, it’s one where you have to be prepared for anything.
And testing is something Elizabeth Lynch, PhD, has been thinking a lot about over the past year, as she and her team launched a program, #COVIDisatest, to combat COVID-19 testing deserts and testing gaps on Chicago’s West Side.
Beginning in early 2021, Lynch, director of the community health section of RUSH’s Department of Preventive Medicine, collaborated with Alive Faith Network on testing deserts — areas where people have few or no COVID-19 testing options.
The Alive Faith Network is a longstanding partnership between Rush and African-American churches in Chicago, dedicated to improving the health and well-being of members of the African-American community.
'In a trusted place'
The program, funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, included the development of COVID-19 testing and research sites at churches throughout Chicago’s West Side. They targeted areas where people were least likely to be able to access COVID-19 testing options, leading to lower testing rates and higher infection rates within communities.
“We wanted to put testing sites in a trusted place, and in a place where pastors could easily promote the testing right at their churches,” Lynch said. “The church is the center of many lives in our area, the center of the community.”
After the launch in early 2021, Lynch and her team saw that needs on the ground had shifted. It was clear that to be most effective, Lynch’s team needed to focus beyond the immediate connections of the Alive Faith Network.
“Many of the church members are older adults,” Lynch said. “At that point all of our pastors were heavily promoting vaccinations, and the older folks got vaccinated really early. So, once we were in the field, COVID was actually being driven by unvaccinated younger people.”
Lynch’s team recalibrated quickly and determined that to meet the true needs of the community, they also needed to reach young people, and those who still weren’t vaccinated. And they needed to get creative.
Social media campaign
In addition to on-site services, Lynch and her team committed to reaching out to this harder-to-find community by launching #COVIDisatest, an Instagram social media campaign focused on encouraging testing within Chicago’s young Black community. The campaign and accompanying website celebrates the strength and resilience of the community, and shows the many reasons why they might want to test. It provides resources on COVID-19, testing locations, educational videos and community stories about individuals’ experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re trying promote at-home testing with this higher-risk community,” Lynch said. “The situation on the ground is constantly changing. It can be hard to maintain a sense of urgency.”
#COVIDisatest also connects people to locations where they can receive two at-home tests — one for themselves and one for someone else. The wireless tests send anonymous data back to Lynch’s team, to monitor testing and positivity rates. They can take them immediately or hold on to them until they are most needed. So far, the program has distributed more than 10,000 at-home tests to the community. And providing extra tests for dissemination beyond the Alive Faith Network's immediate sphere already appears to be reaping benefits.
“According to the initial data we’re getting, the people getting the extra test tend to be young, male, and unvaccinated,” Lynch said. “This is a higher-risk and harder-to-reach population. And we’re getting there.”