Fighting for Black Lives: Dr. Stanford Brings Free COVID-19 Tests to Philadelphia

The pandemic has been particularly tragic for the African American community. Black people continue to die from COVID-19 at around 2.1x the rate of white people, according to the latest figures from the CDC. This disparity often comes down to access. Many African Americans do not have the means to get tested as often as they should, especially if they are considered essential workers, don’t have health insurance, are working around or with the general public, or do not live near a healthcare facility.

That’s why Dr. Ala Stanford created the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, where groups of black providers go into the community with free mobile testing kits. This has helped thousands of residents in and around the Philadelphia area get tested, so they either quarantine or carry on with their lives knowing they don’t have the virus.

From the Couch to the Streets

Like many of us, Stanford was stuck at home at the start of the pandemic. As a pediatric surgeon with a private practice and hospital privileges at a few area hospitals, she had to cancel procedures and consultations as the city braced for the spread of COVID-19.

She was hanging out with her kids and husband watching TV in her pajamas when she started hearing the news that black people were dying and getting infected at much higher rates than those of white people. Her black friends would call her complaining that they couldn’t get tested because they didn’t have a doctor’s referral, or they didn’t meet the testing criteria. For months, certain areas and facilities would only test individuals if they were showing symptoms or were considered a “high risk” individual.

Another problem was that doctors in Philadelphia had to sign on to be the “physician of record” for anyone seeking a test. This meant that the doctor would have been responsible for sending the test results to the patient, as well as reporting these figures to the local and state government. For some providers, this was a tall mountain to climb. They either didn’t have the resources to send out test results or closed their facilities due to a lack of staff, funding, resources, or PPE.

Other medical facilities turned into drive-thru testing sites, but patients were turned away if they showed up without a vehicle on foot.  

Stanford wasn’t having it. She couldn’t just stand by while her friends and neighbors were at risk of contracting this horrible disease. She also knew that black people in the community were less likely to have a primary care physician or health insurance. They were also more likely to take public transportation, all of which can raise their risk for COVID-19.

As she told NPR, “All these reasons in my mind were barriers and excuses. And in essence I decided in that moment we were going to test the city of Philadelphia.”

Mobile, Free Testing on Demand

Stanford and a few of her colleagues hit the streets of Philadelphia in a minivan as they started bringing tests to those in need. She recruited a coalition of volunteers including doctors, nurses, and medical students in her network. With testing kits from LabCorp, with whom she has an account at her private practice, Stanford was able to cut through these barriers and make sure her community could get tested in a timely manner.

As the campaign stretched on, she had to use her personal savings and set up a GoFundMe page to keep the operation running. Drive along the predominantly black neighborhoods in the city, and you’ll find Stanford and her crew sitting in church parking lots helping people get the care they need. They turned the entire lot into a makeshift hospital, complete with computers, printers, and shredders for doing paperwork on the fly.

It wasn’t long before she ran into barriers of her own. LabCorp started asking her what she was going to do with the tests that came back positive. “I said, for every person that does not have insurance, you’re gonna bill me, and I’m gonna figure out how to pay for it later,” said Stanford. “But I can’t have someone die for a test that costs $200.”

By May, the operation was in full swing. The Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium was testing around 350 people a day. To expand her network, Stanford brought the group under the umbrella of a local nonprofit, It Takes Philly, which offers tutoring and mentorship to low-income students.

For many of her patients, getting tested by a black doctor was essential. They either didn’t trust the local hospital or knew they would be turned away. From Stanford’s perspective, it all comes down to implicit bias.

“When an elderly funeral home director in West Philly tries to get tested and you turn him away because he doesn’t have a prescription, that has nothing to do with his hypertension, that has everything to do with your implicit bias,” she commented, referring to one of her patients.

For many black residents, getting tested was about protecting their loved ones. Many people live with an older parent or family member, so bringing the virus home wasn’t an option.

The group has become a beacon of hope for thousands of locals. The city even gave Stanford $1 million in additional funding, which she’s using to pay for those who don’t have insurance. “Sometimes you get reimbursed and sometimes you don’t,” she said. “It’s not an inexpensive operation at all.”

While the city of Philadelphia continues to get back on its feet, Stanford is urging local hospitals to do their fair share. She’s working on creating at least one free testing day a week at local hospitals, so low-income patients can still access vital care. We applaud Stanford and all her hard work, but residents shouldn’t have to depend on volunteers and popup clinics when getting tested. We all must work together if we want this pandemic to come to an end.

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