ST. PETERSBURG — Cars trickled into Childs Park Recreation Center on Monday morning, a slow but steady stream of people hoping to get tested for the novel coronavirus.
The pop-up testing site was a one-day partnership among the Florida Department of Health and St. Petersburg city and fire officials to make testing available to those who may find it harder to get —minorities, people without a car, and anyone lacking health insurance, said Maggie Hall, spokeswoman in Pinellas County for the Department of Health.
One reason for the special opportunity: Concerns that the African-American population is underrepresented in state and county counts of coronavirus cases, said Gina Norris, assistant director of nursing in Pinellas County with the Department of Health.
“That’s why we did this,” said Norris, who helped test some of the people who walked up to the park. “We’re trying to get a more complete sample of the population, especially in the African-American community. We want to know the full reach of this virus.”
The Health Department will offer a similar service at the Frank Pierce Recreation Center in Bartlett Park on Saturday morning, Hall said.
Appointments aren’t required but encouraged, by calling (727) 568-8028. Anyone who has symptoms such as a cough, shortness of breath or a fever can get tested, Hall said. The Health Department is also reaching out to high-risk individuals, such as people who are 65 and older or are immunocompromised.
More than 80 people were tested at Childs Park on Monday morning, mostly through the drive-up option, Hall said. Seven people walked to the park and were tested in a pavilion.
The Health Department was prepared to test 150 people at each site, Hall said. Any leftover materials from Monday will be rolled over for Saturday.
City and state officials reached out to community leaders, church pastors and the neighborhood association to help spread the word. The goal was to help those in the community who might not be able to make it to another county center, Hall said.
It’s a concern shared by leaders throughout Tampa Bay. Earlier this month, Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller questioned whether the county was doing enough to reach minorities, including the African-American community.
Anyone black or white, driving a car or taking bus should be able to find out whether they have contracted COVID-19, Miller and his fellow commissioners said.
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The impact of coronavirus on major ethnic and racial groups sparked a Facebook exchange Saturday involving a number of prominent local African-American leaders.
Gypsy Gallardo of St. Petersburg, owner of The Power Broker magazine, shared a state Department of Health report on her Facebook page showing no apparent disproportionate impact, drawing reaction from Pinellas Commissioner Ken Welch, St. Petersburg Councilwoman Deborah Figgs-Sanders and others.
Florida Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, also warned against a rush to judgment.
“This is just an early indicator,” Rouson told the Tampa Bay Times on Monday. “When you get an early indicator, you need to act on it and not be complacent. By opening sites at Childs Park and Bartlett Park, you show that you’re concerned enough to take the testing to the population that could be impacted the most.”
Gallardo did not return two voicemails left by the Times.
More recent data released by the state Monday said African-Americans account for 16 percent of COVID-19 cases in Florida. That compares with Census projections that African-Americans comprise 15 percent of Florida’s population.
Rouson commended the testing at Childs and Bartlett parks, but said he would like to see even more testing opportunities for people who are at-risk or symptomatic.
“This needs to be talked about, particularly in minority communities,” Rouson said. “Because we don’t want the disparate, disproportionate, dire consequences that could occur if we fail to do so.”
Hillsborough County opened three additional community test sites last week, including one in largely black East Tampa neighborhoods. The test sites allow people who don’t have a car to walk or bike and get tested.
The Health Department in Pinellas also has testing available weekdays at two of its centers, one in downtown St. Petersburg and the other on Ulmerton Road, Norris said. Those sites are also available to individuals without a vehicle.
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