Latino, Black neighborhoods struggle with test disparities

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Medical personnel prepare to test hundreds of people lined up in vehicles Saturday, June 27, 2020, in Phoenix's western neighborhood of Maryvalefor free COVID-19 tests organized by Equality Health Foundation, which focuses on care in underserved communities. As coronavirus infections explode in states like Arizona and Florida, people in communities of color are fighting to get tested. Public health experts say wider testing helps people in underserved neighborhoods and is key to controlling a pandemic. (AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX – A Latino cook whose co-worker got COVID-19 waited in his truck for a free swab at a rare testing event in a low-income neighborhood in Phoenix. A Hispanic tile installer queued up after two weeks of self-isolation while his father battled the coronavirus in intensive care. He didn't know his dad would die days later.

As the pandemic explodes in diverse states like Arizona and Florida, people in communities of color who have been exposed to the virus are struggling to get tested. While people nationwide complain about appointments being overbooked or waiting hours to be seen, getting a test can be even harder in America’s poorer, Hispanic and Black neighborhoods, far from middle-class areas where most chain pharmacies and urgent care clinics offering tests are found.

“There really isn’t any testing around here," said Juan Espinosa, who went with his brother Enrique to the recent drive-up testing event in Phoenix’s largely Latino Maryvale neighborhood after a fellow construction worker was suspected of having COVID-19. “We don’t know anywhere else to go.”

Hundreds of people lined up last week for another large-scale testing event in a different low-income area of Phoenix that's heavily Hispanic and Black.

Arizona — the nation's leader in new confirmed infections per capita over the past two weeks — and its minority neighborhoods are just starting to feel what New York and other East Coast and Midwestern communities experienced several months ago, said Mahasin Mujahid, associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley's School of Public Health.

“It's the perfect storm as this hits unlevel playing fields all across the U.S.,” said Mujahid, a social epidemiologist who studies health in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Public health officials say widespread testing to rapidly identify and isolate infected people can help ensure residents of underserved neighborhoods get care while slowing the virus's spread.

"Pandemics expose the inequalities in our health care system,” said Dr. Thomas Tsai, assistant professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a surgeon at Boston's Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “What is needed is to make testing free and as available as possible.