As COVID-19 continues to spread across the country, state and local health officials rush to try to detect and contain outbreaks before they get out of control. A key to that is testing, and despite a slow start, testing has increased around the country.
But it’s still not always easy to get a test. While many things can affect access to testing, location is an important starting point.
NPR investigated the location of public testing sites in Texas, one of the first states to reopen, to see how they were distributed between predominantly white and predominantly minority areas. The investigation found that in four out of six of the largest cities in Texas, testing sites are disproportionately located in whiter neighborhoods.
With evidence growing that black and Latino communities are harder hit by this deadly disease, community leaders say that testing disparities are problematic. Many experts warn that if communities don’t test the most vulnerable, they could miss pockets of infection and have new large outbreaks.
“If you’re casting a very small net, and you’re shining a flashlight on a small portion of infections that are out there, you might think you’re doing OK,” says Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, lead epidemiologist for the Johns Hopkins COVID Testing Insights Initiative. “Whereas there’s this whole pool of infections that you haven’t seen.”
Nationally, it’s hard to determine where there may be testing disparities because data is scarce. Most states and cities across the country either do not track or do not report the racial breakdown of tests that are conducted. But there are media reports of racial disparities that suggest that the patterns identified in Texas are happening in other parts of the country.
“I was acutely concerned from the very beginning,” says Dr. Wayne Frederick, president of Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C., who is leading efforts by the university to bring more testing to black neighborhoods. The lack of attention paid to minority health care, he says, “is not a good strategy for our health care system and for the vulnerable part of our community.”
In Dallas, a stark divide exists between the north and south ends of town. Interstate 30 bisects the city and largely serves as a borderline between the city’s predominantly white neighborhoods to the north and the predominantly black or Hispanic neighborhoods in the south.
In North Dallas there are 20 testing sites. Southern Dallas has nine, with a third of those sitting within a mile of the interstate.
Dallas County, home to the city of Dallas, has the second-highest COVID-19 case count in the state.