Hundreds of people have been turned away from a free coronavirus testing site at a church in a heavily Latino neighborhood of Baltimore in the past month due to a lack of adequate testing from the state, the church’s pastor said Friday.
Seventeen Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church parishioners have died from COVID-19 — three of them after waiting but being unable to get one of the 100-120 free tests administered by the city health department at the church each Wednesday for the past four weeks, the Rev. Bruce Lewandowski said.
“Sadly, we’ve had parishioners who’ve been in line for hours waiting to be tested, go home untested, and die,” Lewandowski said.
Sacred Heart primarily serves the Latino community, which has the highest rate of infection of any race or ethnic group in Maryland. Many parishioners are undocumented immigrants, who tend to be reticent to go to doctor’s offices or hospitals because they are worried about being asked for documentation or receiving a bill they cannot pay, Lewandowski said.
Two people collapsed while waiting in line for tests in the church’s parking lot on Wednesday and were taken to the hospital in ambulances, the pastor said. Of his many parishioners hospitalized with the coronavirus, three are in critical condition in intensive-care units, he said.
Lewandowski, who is a leader in Baltimoreans United for Leadership Development, and others with the interfaith community organization renewed their calls Friday for Gov. Larry Hogan to expand access to testing in the city.
“The governor has said in press conferences ... anyone in the state of Maryland who wants more tests can get tested," Lewandowski said. “That’s not true in the City of Baltimore. In the City of Baltimore, if you want to get tested, you have to make sure you show up and stand in line for hours, and then there’s still no guarantee you’re going to get tested.”
The state regularly offers to increase the amount of test kits provided to Baltimore and other local jurisdictions, “particularly so that they can offer testing in nonconventional community settings, including mobile sites,” said Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan.
“It is our understanding that Baltimore City currently has at least 1,500 tests on hand from the state,” Ricci said in an email. “That said, we are actively exploring ways that the state can partner with BUILD directly to ramp up their testing program."
The number of test kits isn’t the only issue at the city’s free, walk-up, mobile testing sites at Sacred Heart and the Family Health Centers of Baltimore in Cherry Hill and Brooklyn, said Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa.
Increased staffing, personal protective equipment and lab capacity are also needed to test more widely in the city, Dzirasa said in a phone interview Friday.
“We’ve all heard of this national shortage of tests,” she said. “But it’s more complex than that.”
In addition to the mobile sites, the city health department also operates community testing sites by appointment and with a doctor’s referral at Druid Park, Clifton Park and Pimlico Race Course from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. daily, she said. Appointments can be made by calling 211.
Sacred Heart’s mostly Latino congregation often requires either Spanish-speaking staff or interpreters, both for the testing process and the calls back with results, Dzirasa said.
“It is a complex equation to pull off mobile testing sites,” the health commissioner said.
Andrew Foster-Connors and Bishop Douglas Miles, BUILD’s clergy co-chairs, have twice requested an emergency meeting with Hogan, a public testing plan for the state and regular reporting on the number of tests provided to each local jurisdiction.
The 1,000 tests per week being distributed to Baltimore City by the state “still is not enough,” they wrote. Local health experts have reported the city needs at least 2,600 tests per day to ensure adequate capacity, they wrote.
“We are asking for more so the City can meet the need in the 21224 zip code and expand community-based testing at congregations located in other hot spots in east and west Baltimore," BUILD wrote.
Officials have seen “a significant improvement across the region” in testing, and the 1,000 tests per week “works well” for the city’s current testing capacity, Dzirasa said.
Angel, a 42-year-old man who works for Ke Pachanga Radio, an online Baltimore-based Spanish-language station, said he waited three hours to get a test at the church on May 27.
He declined to provide his last name, out of concern for his privacy.
“It was uncomfortable waiting for a long time,” he said. “But it was worth the wait.”
Breaking News Alerts
Speaking through a translator, Angel said he had been experiencing some COVID-19 symptoms, including a cough, body aches, muscle weakness and a loss of smell and taste, but no fever.
When the results arrived, he learned he had tested positive for the virus, he said. He has been isolating himself inside a room in his house away from his family and friends, he said.
Angel’s sense of smell and taste are returning, but he still gets body aches sometimes, he said. He’s thankful for his friends and family members, who have been leaving food outside the door and helping in other ways while he’s been isolated.
“I’m not working presently, and I’m really relying on my friends and family,” he said.
The Rev. George Hopkins, pastor at Sowebo Community Church and another BUILD official, was so moved by the sight of many of the city’s Latin American residents protesting police brutality against African Americans this week that he wanted to “stand in solidarity” with them to request additional COVID-19 testing.
“I have heard it been said that we have more than enough tests, but what we’re seeing here locally is people being turned away every week without being able to be tested," Hopkins said.
The church at 600 S. Conkling St. will continue offering free testing to anyone who wants one beginning at 10 a.m. on Wednesdays, and it has begun offering tests on Fridays as well.