The new coronavirus moved fast, unleashing a health care crisis that evolved into an economic and social emergency, hitting the most vulnerable communities hardest. Realizing what they were up against, nonprofit and outreach organizations across Chattanooga forged a web of partnerships to tackle a catalog of needs — from free, accessible testing for COVID-19 to meals for kids suddenly out of school and cash for newly out-of-work families to make rent.
Providers who had already been focused every day on closing gaps in health care saw the challenges of COVID-19 magnify existing problems, requiring entirely new solutions.
“As far as the economics of the underserved, it’s huge,” says Dr. Kelly Arnold, the founder and clinical director of Clinica Medicos. “As people quickly were displaced from employment, as the hotels were closed, the restaurants were closed, a lot of the industries where people were dependent were shut down, the very first thing to go for the uninsured population is health care.”
As the data came into focus, it was clear cases among Latino residents outpaced other groups, and infections among Black residents grew at a faster rate than among white residents. The virus spread deep into the area’s most at-risk ZIP codes — neighborhoods already grappling with worse health outcomes and limited resources. Free, fast and accessible COVID-19 testing became an urgent need that local health care and community outreach organizations quickly collaborated to deliver.
From May through early August, organizations including Cempa Community Care, Clinica Medicos, La Paz, Lifespring Pediatrics and Alleo Health System, which owns Hospice of Chattanooga, organized 21 mobile community testing sites.
“We’ve tested close to 3,000 people — 37% Black and 28% Hispanic, so 65% have been from minority communities,” says Shannon Stephenson, CEO of Cempa Community Care. “We recognized that we needed to mobilize very quickly.’
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