According to a report compiled by the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), 70 COVID-19 testing sites across 17 states have been forced to close due to destruction from civil unrest.
All 70 testing sites were part of the Community-Based Testing Sites for COVID-19 program – a federal program started by the HHS in March to provide free testing for COVID-19. The majority of these testing sites are located in, what officials call “socially vulnerable” neighborhoods.
In total, 424 testing sites are a part of the government program.
Since the protests started after the death of George Floyd early last week, at least nine health centers in five states have been damaged. Cities include Sacramento, Philadelphia, Dever and Minneapolis. Six more health centers in five other states were also temporarily closed because of their proximity to the demonstrations.
“Our urban areas are getting disparately hit by the virus, and then they are getting disparately hit by the violence,” said Michael Caputo – the HHS’s assistant secretary for public affairs. “And the result is a community that is truly in need for testing capacity is losing that capacity.”
James Garrow, the spokesman for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health called the closings regrettable but also added that testing capacity wouldn’t be severely impacted since the city has more than 50 coronavirus testing sites.
However, US Deputy Surgeon General Erica Schwartz disagreed saying, “I think even one being closed” is a problem but emphasized that most of the testing sites that have shut down temporarily “are absolutely committed to getting back up.”
On Wednesday, following the closures of the pharmacies and health centers, the National Community Pharmacists Association (NCPA) released a statement expressing the organization’s disapproval of the damage and looting.
“In recent days we have received reports from long-time members that their pharmacies were damaged and looted in the rioting that broke out during the peaceful protests,” read the statement.
“These are all family-owned businesses that have been serving people in their communities for years, and sometimes generations, and have been on front lines of health care during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of those communities are under-served, where the local pharmacy is the only accessible health care provider.”
The NCPA iterated their support for the protestor’s goals but urged law enforcement officers to increase protection of local businesses from rioting and looting.
Leana Wen, the former health commissioner of Baltimore, also expressed concern that temporary or permanent closure of testing sites could make people wary of getting tested at places that have been vandalized. She also added that the sudden closure of the testing sites could make it more difficult for authorities to identify any potential increase in COVID-19 cases. “We shouldn’t feel comfortable if we don’t see an uptick,” said Wen, “there may be a reason why the numbers aren’t being captured.”
The US has been by far the worst-hit nation by the COVID-19 pandemic, with total confirmed cases growing close to two million.
Government officials are now worried that the protests may exacerbate the pandemic.
On Wednesday, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms urged people in her city to get tested if they had “participated in recent large gatherings and demonstrations.”
The Minnesota Department of Health has also updated its testing guidelines adding, “people who have participated in any large gatherings, including but not limited to protests, community clean up and recovery efforts, vigils, [and] neighborhood defense meetings” should prioritize getting tested for the virus.
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