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With mobile units, Philadelphia doctor brings coronavirus testing to the city's Black communities

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 2 July 2020 15:51 GMT

Ala Stanford, a U.S. doctor and founder of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, Philadelphia, United States, June 13, 2020. Courtesy of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium.

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Dr. Ala Stanford's mobile units have provided free coronavirus tests to over 6,000 people in the city's hard-hit Black neighborhoods

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By Anastasia Moloney

July 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Dr. Ala Stanford received a flurry of calls in March from Black friends who feared they had COVID-19 but couldn't get tested at hospitals in Philadelphia, she knew she had to act.

The virus was tearing through the city's Black community but many - even those with health insurance - were getting turned away.

"If you lived in a white neighborhood you were five times more likely to get tested than in a black neighborhood," Stanford, a 49-year-old pediatric surgeon, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Her solution was simple: take the tests to the people.

Her volunteer group, the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, made up of about 50 doctors, nurses and healthcare workers offers free coronavirus testing on streets and in church parking lots in communities hardest hit by the pandemic.

Since April, the group has tested more than 6,000 people in and around Philadelphia, the majority from Black communities.

HIGHER MORTALITY RATES

Black Americans make up 12% of the U.S. population but they are twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than white Americans and Asians, according to U.S.-based APM Research Lab.

Philadelphia's Black residents, who make up about 40% of the city's 1.6 million population, and especially Black men, are suffering higher infection rates, partly due to poverty and a lack of access to healthcare, education, and decent housing.

Stanford, who grew up in dilapidated neighborhoods in North Philadelphia, believes stress compounds the risks faced by Black Americans with underlying health conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and obesity.

"There is an inherent stress that comes with being Black in America that we all contend with from conception. That stress also cumulatively affects our health outcomes," she said.

Black Americans are also more vulnerable to COVID-19 because of work like bus driving and cleaning hospitals.

And systematic racial bias also means Black Americans face barriers when trying to get tested for COVID-19, she said.

"I knew it wasn't just about the social determinants. It was racial bias of the healthcare provider and or the institution too," said Stanford, who has a private practice and runs a medical consulting firm.

Ala Stanford, a U.S. doctor and founder of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium does mobile COVID-19 testing in Philadelphia, United States, June, 2020. Courtesy of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium.

'DOOR TO DOOR' TESTING

In early April, Stanford and other doctors parked their van on a Philadelphia street and started testing people for free using nasal swabs.

Her testing sites - unlike others in the city which are mostly drive-through - allow people who don't have a car to get tested.

"We literally went door to door," Stanford said.

She partnered with Black churches who let her test people in their parking lots. Black radio stations and pastors helped spread the word.

Her crowdfunding campaign has so far raised nearly $300,000 to cover transport, personal protective equipment, and testing, which costs about $200 per person.

The Black Doctors Consortium received a grant of about $1 million from Philadelphia's city council and Stanford has contributed $50,000 of her own money to the campaign.

RACISM

Growing up in the 1980s in a city notorious for its racially segregated neighborhoods, Stanford recalls an unsafe area filled with roaches and lacking grocery stores.

Still, her teenage mother instilled in Stanford a sense of self-belief and determination.

Her academic prowess as a teenager won her a place at on a program for gifted children that broadened her horizons.

"I didn't like what poor felt like. I knew I was destined for more than what I saw in my neighborhood," she said.

At school, Stanford experienced racism. She was called "Anna" instead of Ala, "because it was considered easier to pronounce and a prettier name."

The racism continues. Last month, while testing in the parking lot of a church used by a predominantly white community outside Philadelphia she was watched by police officers with dogs.

"At the white church we went to it felt totally different," recalled Stanford, adding that the church had sealed off the bathrooms so that her team couldn't use them.

"Who were the police there to protect?" she said.

After the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died in U.S. police custody in June, the city's police chief wrote a letter to Stanford apologizing for being unwelcoming.

"It had to take his death for them to realise what they had done was wrong," Stanford said.

Floyd's death sparked global protests and debate about racism in the U.S. but Stanford is uncertain whether it will bring lasting change in society anytime soon.

"I have three Black sons. They are seen more as a threat than an asset .. I still have to talk with my boys about police interaction," she said.

"I think there's a lot more dialogue but I don't know if this will bring change in my lifetime," Stanford said.

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(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Tom Finn. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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