Availability of novel coronavirus testing in Allegheny County has significantly expanded since mid-March. Though some public health experts, activists and elected officials say many residents still lack access.
People who live in congregate settings are particularly at risk of contracting the virus. County Councilor Bethany Hallam says that is why she’s sponsoring legislation that calls for universal testing of both staff and residents at the county jail and the county-run Kane Senior Living Centers.
“Social distancing is impossible [in these facilities,]” said Hallam, during a press conference organized by Put People First! Pennsylvania, a progressive social justice organization.
At Kane’s Glen Hazel facility, more than 100 people have tested positive and 18 residents have died from COVID-19, making it the worst outbreak among nursing homes in the county.
Last week Gov. Tom Wolf directed all nursing homes to voluntarily begin universal testing of staff and residents. Kane’s executive director Dennis Biondo said, “We are awaiting detailed guidance and information from the state and will implement whatever measures may be part of that guidance.”
At the jail, where dozens of inmates have contracted the virus, Warden Orlando Harper said that, “The decision as to whether universal testing is done at the jail is a medical one. We are following the guidance from our medical provider, the Health Department, the PA Department of Health, the PA Department of Corrections and the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.]”
The jail has also cited logistical challenges for universal testing, like a lack of personal protective equipment and health care workers. Though the facility emphasized these factors are separate from the medical decision-making process.
Additionally, the coronavirus spreads rapidly. A person can easily become infected after testing negative, so frequent retesting is required for universal testing to be comprehensive.
“Then at the very least we have a snapshot in time of where we are with COVID-19 within these facilities," Hallam said. "And then, consulting with the medical experts going forward, we will decide how regularly this needs to be done."
Another population that lacks testing access is anyone without a car.
“They rely on public transportation, jitney, Uber to get them to a testing site. And often times, even when that fails, they try calling a family member,” said Duquesne emergency manager Tammy Pratt.
These forms of transportation bring potentially infected people into contact with healthy people, allowing the virus to spread. For this reason, Pratt and Duquesne Mayor Nickole Nesby want the county to create a mobile testing unit.
“While this may be a fast-moving pandemic, it’s a slow-moving disaster," said Pratt, who worries adequate testing won't be in place by the fall, when cases of the coronavirus are expected to increase.
Though the county has repeatedly said that medical providers are responsible for coronavirus testing, it recently spearheaded a program that makes this service available at the county's seven federally qualified health centers. These clinics are mandated to care for anyone, regardless of insurance status or ability to pay.
One of the participating providers, Northside Christian Health Center, said it hopes to eventually deploy a mobile testing unit. Allegheny Health Network recently created its own mobile unit and launched its inaugural outpost in Pittsburgh's Homewood neighborhood.