El Paso County Health officials said Wednesday they’re working to address concerns about the availability of coronavirus testing in southeast Colorado Springs after the closure of a volunteer-led pop-up testing site.
The site, established in part by the nonprofit Servicios de la Raza (Services for the People), helped reach people who are vulnerable to COVID-19 and may not otherwise have a chance to get tested, said Julissa Soto, the organization’s director of statewide programs.
“There are health disparities and health inequities” that make testing difficult for those in the Hispanic community, Soto said. Many are front-line workers who may not have health insurance or access to health care, and the testing site at the Southeastern YMCA brought a sense of comfort to Spanish-speaking residents and undocumented immigrants, she said.
During its roughly seven-week period of operation between June 26 and Aug. 17, the site saw a 27% positivity rate among 100 people tested.
“That’s fairly significant if you think about what that means for the kind of work that we need to continue to do for that population in that part of town,” said Lisa Powell, Public Health’s Emergency Preparedness Program manager. “It’s a population that we have not targeted well, and they have not had the same amount of access to our testing sites.”
Hispanics make up roughly 20% of the population in El Paso County but account for just over 31% of local COVID cases, county data show.
Of 52,074 people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in Colorado, 38% are Hispanic, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Hispanics make up about 22% of the state’s 5.7 million residents.
When Soto heard from her community that financial and rental assistance as well as information on how to access behavioral health care were needed more than food assistance, she switched gears. Because Servicios de la Raza volunteers led the testing initiative at the Southeast YMCA, the site was closed when the organization ceased its food drive, Soto said. Powell said there was also a decrease in the number of people being tested there.
Now Servicios de la Raza is providing informational flyers at the county’s newest bilingual drive-thru community testing site at The Citadel mall, which provides free coronavirus testing to all residents. Health officials are also working with the organization to identify other areas in El Paso County that might benefit from increased testing, Powell said.
It’s still too early to know where those sites might be located, but Soto said she would like to see more testing sites in Fountain and other places where Hispanics live and work.
“You can see the need, but there is so much fear. … It upsets me that my community has to choose between possible deportation or getting COVID,” Soto said.
Many won’t seek out testing or services from other resources because Servicios de la Raza is a trusted organization in the Hispanic community, she said.
“They don’t want to go anywhere else other than were Servicios is leading, because we are bilingual. We look like them. They know we will not deport them. The community is very afraid and aware that things can happen, especially with ugliness and racism happening.”
Even as cases trend downward overall in El Paso County, additional coronavirus testing is needed because it provides vital information about the positivity rate and will lead discussions on how to fight the virus, health officials said.
“Testing is needed all over the county so we can have a better pulse on our positivity rate and a look at how we are doing …” Powell said.
Most of the county’s testing sites are in Colorado Springs, Public Health Director Susan Wheelan said, pointing to southeastern El Paso County as one area where testing was needed.
“Those are areas where we’re seeing some high numbers,” Wheelan said.
Possible future testing sites could go up in Security-Widefield, Fountain, Falcon and even Monument, Powell said.
“If you test positive there’s an understanding there of why it’s important to follow other health guidelines, and it helps us stop the spread to others. The mitigation plan — keeping a 6-foot distance, wearing a mask and increased testing — are all reasons why we’re seeing the number of cases fall” in El Paso County, Powell said.
Two weeks after it opened to the public, the county will also reevaluate the operating hours and testing volume of the testing site at The Citadel mall, Powell said.
Open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., cars have been lining up to test as early as 8:30 a.m., Wheelan said, with some vehicles “trickling in” between 5-7 p.m., suggesting the need to update the site’s hours of operation to better serve residents.
The site has the capacity to test 750 people per day, more than the daily capacity of two other county testing sites combined — a UCHealth testing tent on Kidskare Point and the Peak Vista drive-thru site on North Academy Boulevard — but is only testing an average of 300 people per day, Powell said.
Changes to the site’s hours could come as early as next week, Wheelan said.