A free COVID-19 testing location will be available next Thursday in Athens, with testing open to anyone who visits — including those without insurance or COVID-19 symptoms.
The event will be held 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at James Chapel Missionary Baptist Church on Lucas Street. It was organized by the Limestone County NAACP's COVID-19 task force, working in conjunction with Athens-Limestone Hospital and area sponsors.
Limestone NAACP formed the task force at its April meeting, citing concerns over the disproportionately negative effects COVID-19 was having on minority communities.
"We understand there were limited tests and they had to prioritize, and the priority was those who had symptoms, but there are a lot of people who are carrying this disease and don't even know it," said Roy Rugless, pastor and task force member.
African Americans make up about 27% of Alabama's population, yet as of Thursday, they accounted for at least 39% of COVID-19 cases and at least 44% of related deaths, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health. Experts have said this in part due to the abundance of pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, in African American communities.
"African Americans have been neglected over the centuries, especially when it comes to health, and we want to make a difference in our community," Rugless said.
However, Rugless and other task force members stressed Thursday's event is for everyone. Athens-Limestone Hospital will provide 250 testing kits and Waddell Center Family Medicine will administer them, Rugless said.
"Initially, they were only going to give us 50 tests," Rugless said. "(ALH President David) Pryor was so sensitive to what we're trying to do, he gave us 250 testing kits."
In addition to testing at James Chapel MBC, LifeSouth will have a bloodmobile available at Lucas Street Church of Christ. During the pandemic, many blood donation events had to be canceled or postponed, creating critical shortages in supply for patients who need transfusions. These include patients with sickle cell anemia, an inherited red blood cell disorder found most commonly in the African American community.
So, "we're doing two things — not only are we helping as it relates to the pandemic, but we're also helping as it relates to blood supply for a minority community whose blood supply has been depleted due to this pandemic," Rugless said.
Athens City Councilman Frank Travis, who also serves on the NAACP COVID-19 task force, said it was important for them to set these opportunities up in the heart of the community, to make sure people felt comfortable attending.
"Initially, you had to have a doctor's slip to get tested, have insurance and those types of things, and so we feel like there's a deterrent for a lot of people in our community and other communities not to get tested because of things of that nature," he said. "We're going to set it up in the heart of the community, at a church."
Insurance will not be required for those seeking a test. The tests will be provided completely free of charge, even if the person does not present with symptoms or is not considered at-risk for severe complications from the disease.
In addition to Limestone NAACP, the hospital and the churches, other organizations are assisting with the event. The Alabama Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have provided fliers that will be handed out to those who attend, with information on symptoms and how to reduce the spread of the disease.
Meanwhile, AAA Advantage Medical Equipment and Supplies of Athens has provided protective gear kits for attendees. Each kit contains a pair of gloves, a face mask and a bottle of hand sanitizer.
Task force member Maurice Dawson said the event is designed to support all communities, no matter the race, and members thanked the many sponsors who devoted their time and resources to making it happen. If enough people take advantage of the opportunity Thursday, additional free public testing events may be organized in the future.
"We can do all this work, all this planning, but unless someone shows up we can't execute the plan," Dawson said.
"There are a lot of people not taking this thing seriously," Rugless said of the virus. "This thing kills."
In addition to planning for future sites, Rugless and task force member Diane Steele said there are plans for educational opportunities to help the community's overall health moving forward.
"This is a short-term fix for something that's going on right now," Steele said. "We're going to call on our elected and non-elected officials to help us become a healthier community in general ... and therefore not as susceptible to this virus and other things in our community."
She told The News Courier that in spite of the darkness of the virus, "we know we are a very resilient community and we are going to get through this."
For more information on Thursday's free testing event, call 256-230-1325 or 256-683-9912.