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Sonoma County health advocates distribute 120,000 free rapid COVID-19 tests to low-income and Latino families

Where to go for take-home tests for those in need

Organizations participating in distribution of rapid COVID-19 tests:

Churches:

St John's in Healdsburg

Resurrection Center in Santa Rosa

Our Lady of Guadalupe in Windsor

St. Rose in Santa Rosa - Spanish speaking congregation

St. Sebastian in Sebastopol

St. Joseph's in Cotati

St. Vincent de Paul in Petaluma

St. Elizabeth's in Guerneville

St. Teresa of Avila in Bodega Bay

St. Leo the Great in Agua Caliente

Westside Community Church (Pacific Islander)

Iglesia SE - Rohnert Park

Centro Christiano Evangelico - Roseland

Other community-based organizations:

Redwood Empire Food Bank

RCCS - River to Coast Child Services

La Luz

Centro Laboral de Graton (Graton Day Labor Center)

Corazón Healdsburg

La Familia Sana

Nuestra Comunidad

Latino Service Providers

The Bridge Church

Center for Wellbeing

Via Esperanza / CAP

CURA

Food for All

St. Joes

Food for Thought

Reach for Home

Petaluma People Services

North Bay Organizing Project

Lideres del Futuro

_____

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

To track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world, go here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Hoping to blunt the disproportionate impact of another winter surge of COVID-19, a coalition of local health advocates is distributing more than 100,000 rapid tests to disadvantaged Latino and low-income families in Sonoma County.

The effort comes at a critical time when residents across Sonoma County are gearing up for Christmas and New Year’s gatherings, and the threat of a new, more transmissible COVID-19 variant is quickly emerging.

“We know that this omicron variant is coming at the absolute worst time,” said Dr. Panna Lossy, founder of IsoCare Network, a local nonprofit that has helped struggling families isolate and quarantine safely.

“We are really trying to empower everyone to get as much information as possible, and help people be safer during this really dangerous time,” Lossy said. “The people in Sonoma County who have been most impacted by this pandemic over and over again have been Latinx residents and low-income, essential workers and their families.”

The local effort was already underway when President Joe Biden on Tuesday said the government would buy a half-billion rapid coronavirus tests and distribute them free to Americans, part of his administration’s response amid a surge of new cases from the highly contagious omicron variant.

Lossy, whose organization is part of the local collaborative, said over-the-counter antigen tests, such as Abbott’s BinaxNow and the Ellume COVID-19 Home Test, are an important tool in helping control the pandemic. But she said the cost of these tests, about $25 for a two-test kit, can be prohibitive for low-income residents.

Lossy and others involved in the distribution effort are targeting underserved populations with the highest rates of COVID-19 infections, as well as those in congregate living environments and large families. Other groups include people who plan to gather for faith-based activities and those involved with organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

“We’re really focusing, from an equity lens, on those who may have increased barriers related to costs,” said Dr. Jason Cunningham, CEO of West County Health Centers, a key partner in the collaboration.

Cunningham said the tests, 120,000 of them, are professional grade and come from the state Department of Public Health. He said West County Health Centers obtained a federal waiver to distribute the tests to community-based organizations across the county.

Unlike rapid tests purchased at local pharmacies, the state-provided tests come in boxes of 40 tests per box kit with only one bottle of chemical reagent. Cunningham and Lossy said that poses a problem in the distribution effort, and steps must be taken to ensure that those who receive them have sufficient testing needs.

That could be large families or groups that plan to gather during the holidays or attend an event as a large group. For families, Lossy said the minimum requirement is that they have at least four members and be low-income.

“We really want to encourage people to use them now and not hoard them,” Lossy said, adding that the 120,000 tests have an expiration date of Jan. 13.

Aside from West County Health Centers and IsoCare Network, the other key partners in the distribution effort are CURA Project and the Healthcare Foundation. Assisting in the distribution are numerous churches of the Santa Rosa Catholic Diocese and other denominations, as well as groups including Redwood Empire Food Bank, Comida Para Todos, the Graton Day Labor Center, Petaluma People Services and River to Coast Child Services.

On Monday afternoon, Redwood Empire Food Bank distributed test kits with food boxes to low-income families at Martin Luther King Park in Santa Rosa.

Allison Goodwin, director of programs for the food bank, said families are asked during the food distribution sign-up if they want a test kit. Those who accept a test kit are instructed on how to use them and told of the expiration date.

“They have to understand that they really are the facilitator in their environment or household that makes sure everyone gets tested,” Goodwin said. The food bank received 2,000 tests, or 52 boxes, and plans to distribute all of them by Wednesday, she said.

Mario Castillo-Guido, one of the founders of food pantry Comida Para Todos, or Food for All, has already distributed 85 box kits to families in Sonoma Valley. He’s reached out to area residents through social media and has been flooded with requests.

“I’ve been getting people who say they can’t find them at the store or they’re very expensive,” he said, adding that he only had 15 boxes left.

To ensure that the test kits are not wasted, Castillo-Guido’s organization has been setting up ad hoc testing sites in neighborhoods and apartment complexes, where one or two people are responsible for administering the tests and ensuring that they’re used properly. He said it’s a form of empowering local residents to take charge of their health needs.

Thoughout the pandemic, infectious disease experts have encouraged the use of rapid antigen tests to help combat COVID-19.

Unlike polymerase chain reaction (or PCR) tests, the mainstay of COVID-19 diagnostic testing, antigen tests can be used at home and will produce test results in 15 to 30 minutes. Though they are not as sensitive as PCR tests, antigen tests are good at detecting larger viral loads.

County health officials said the state-provided tests also come with the requirement that any positive results have to be reported to the state. Those who receive the tests are asked to report any positive results to the county.

State public health officials said the kits are available through a waiver to physicians, organizations and institutions that want to conduct community-based testing. To do so, organizations can log on to the California Testing Task Force website and click the “start testing” button at the top of the page.

State officials said the requirement that positive test results be reported back to state and local health departments is part of the federal waiver process, and the state has contracted with two vendors to facilitate reporting, though other methods can also be used for reporting.

The state also distributes rapid COVID-19 tests similar to those sold in pharmacies and packaged as two tests per box, officials said. The state Department of Public Health said in an email that at-home tests will likely increase access to testing and increase the number of people testing.

“This could lead to people isolating sooner when infectious with COVID-19 helping to prevent the spread of the virus,” officials said.

Cunningham said distribution of two-test kits, as opposed to the larger 40-test kits, would be more effective for a wider range of households and could get the tests into more hands. For now, he said, the coalition of local organizations is forging an effective distribution model to fight a virus that has been a relentless foe for the county’s most disadvantaged residents.

“It minimizes the involvement of health systems,” Cunningham said. “I’d rather give the tests out to community-based organizations who can get them to people. It’s a more efficient system.”

Lossy said she fears another winter surge that could result in large numbers of people hospitalized and an increasing number of post-holiday deaths. The number of people who have succumbed to COVID-19 has greatly declined since the summer wave of infections, hospitalizations and deaths — largely driven by the delta variant.

Even if the omicron mutation causes less severe illness than the delta variant, the more infectious omicron strain could result in more deaths, she said.

“When a fire gets really burning hot and hard, even the wet grass will burn,” she said. “The unvaccinated are like dry grass.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

Where to go for take-home tests for those in need

Organizations participating in distribution of rapid COVID-19 tests:

Churches:

St John's in Healdsburg

Resurrection Center in Santa Rosa

Our Lady of Guadalupe in Windsor

St. Rose in Santa Rosa - Spanish speaking congregation

St. Sebastian in Sebastopol

St. Joseph's in Cotati

St. Vincent de Paul in Petaluma

St. Elizabeth's in Guerneville

St. Teresa of Avila in Bodega Bay

St. Leo the Great in Agua Caliente

Westside Community Church (Pacific Islander)

Iglesia SE - Rohnert Park

Centro Christiano Evangelico - Roseland

Other community-based organizations:

Redwood Empire Food Bank

RCCS - River to Coast Child Services

La Luz

Centro Laboral de Graton (Graton Day Labor Center)

Corazón Healdsburg

La Familia Sana

Nuestra Comunidad

Latino Service Providers

The Bridge Church

Center for Wellbeing

Via Esperanza / CAP

CURA

Food for All

St. Joes

Food for Thought

Reach for Home

Petaluma People Services

North Bay Organizing Project

Lideres del Futuro

_____

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

To track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world, go here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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