To reach Santa Barbara County’s vulnerable, public health targeted COVID-19 testing, drop-in sites

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, socially distanced residents lined up single file at Santa Barbara’s Franklin Elementary School to receive a COVID-19 test.

About 20 people arrived early for the walk-in, no appointments necessary, testing opportunity on the Lower Eastside.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Santa Barbara County community leaders and public health officials have been addressing a wide variety of issues related to testing and health equity among vulnerable populations, including neighborhoods where residents have less access to healthcare resources. 

“It’s been a learning experience for all of us along the way with this, and being able to expand our capacity to do the testing,” said Matt Higgs, the county’s Emergency Medical Services systems coordinator.

The current no-appointment, walk-in testing sites include:

» La Cumbre Junior High School, 2255 Modoc Road in Santa Barbara, from 3 to 6 p.m. Mondays

» Franklin School, 1111 E. Mason St. in Santa Barbara, from 3 to 6 p.m. Wednesdays

» Isla Vista Theater, 960 Embarcadero del Norte in Isla Vista, from noon to 5 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

The county Public Health Department has partnered with the Santa Barbara Unified School District to host the weekly walk-in testing at school campuses.

County officials also reached out to other school districts about the potential of partnerships and other locations that have good walk-in access. The emphasis has been on schools that serve the county’s most-disadvantaged neighborhoods, in terms of health equity, Higgs said.

Neighborhood residents line up to receive COVID-19 tests at Franklin School on Santa Barbara’s Lower Eastside as part of the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department’s outreach efforts. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

Neighborhood residents line up to receive COVID-19 tests at Franklin School on Santa Barbara’s Lower Eastside as part of the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department’s outreach efforts. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

The county currently has four state-operated testing sites open for free COVID-19 testing to anyone: the American Medical Response Central Training Center at 240 E. Highway 246, Suite 110, Buellton; Goleta Valley Community Center at 5679 Hollister Ave. in Old Town Goleta; and Santa Maria Health Care Center (outdoor kiosk) at 2115 S. Centerpointe Parkway in Santa Maria.

The mobile COVID-19 testing bus is now located at Santa Barbara’s East Beach waterfront parking lot, at 1118 E. Cabrillo Blvd.

A mobile testing site first opened near Santa Barbara in January, and the bus has been moved around to other areas since then.

Mobile pop-up testing events, which can serve about 500 people each day, have been held in Carpinteria, Lompoc and Santa Maria.

“The idea with the mobile bus has been that it gives us an opportunity to reach out to different areas within the county that don’t necessarily have ready access to one of the state fixed sites,” Higgs said.

“And also try to get into neighborhoods that don’t have as much access in general to health care and testing, and some of our lower equity areas within the county.”

The mobile unit had success at its first stop at CenCal Health, at 4050 Calle Real near Santa Barbara.

“There were days when we were seeing 500-plus people at the bus,” Higgs said. “Since then, it has been not as successful, so we are trying to find some of the better spots where we can maximize that large capacity of testing, and still get outreach to individuals.”

Public health officials brought in testing at various other pop-up events that have been held in “what have been referred to as testing deserts,” Higgs said, noting that the first was in Guadalupe last June.

Pop-ups took place in the fall in Cuyama and a couple of weeks in a row in Isla Vista, he said.

With the county’s winter COVID-19 surge, there was a need to resume no-appointment, walk-in testing opportunities in Isla Vista.

More than 350 people were served in a five-hour period during the height of the spike in early January, Higgs said.

“That was an extremely busy day for our staff,” he said. “Since then, we are down at around 100 individuals per day at that site.

“What we learned with that walk-in testing was that there seemed to be a community need for that type of service. Rather than having to get online and sign up, there seemed to be a pretty big demand to be able to walk up, do the registration outside and get tested there.”

Locations identified by the California Healthy Places Index are a key indicator for identifying a space for pop-ups.

“We also have to be mindful of having a partner in the area that we can work with to be able to access those locations,” Higgs said. “The schools have been a big help.”

Santa Barbara County’s Latinx & Indigenous Migrant COVID-19 Response Task Force’s priority action area document summarizes a range of issues raised during meetings with community partners or individuals who need to be addressed amid the pandemic.

The document includes about 260 priority action areas and concerns, along with dozens of efforts to develop solutions.

In collaboration with the Public Health Department, the countywide task force focused on addressing health equity efforts in the county’s indigenous and Latinx migrant communities.

About nine days after the first local case of COVID-19 was reported in March 2020, one of the task force’s first concerns was listed: the need for information about free coronavirus-related services to be advertised, as residents were avoiding care due to fear of cost.

In response, the department waived copay charges for coronavirus care and created fliers that were widely circulated. Community Health Centers of the Central Coast, or CHC, offered testing, health, education in Spanish and Mixteco plus free access to care in several clinics in the county.

Less than a month later, on April 20, the county’s task force listed the need to expand COVID-19 testing sites as a priority. An idea that emerged from this concern was possible pop-up intake sites at highly populated areas like laundromats or near grocery stores.

CHC is a nonprofit network of community health centers serving residents on the Central Coast, with an emphasis on people most at risk and underserved. The organization provided more than 450,000 visits annually.

More than a year ago, CHC opened four clinics — in Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo, the Five Cities area in southern San Luis Obispo County and the largest, and busiest, clinic in Santa Maria — for evaluating patients with COVID-19.

Dr. Steve Clarke, CHC’s medical director, told Noozhawk that given the county’s demographics, northern Santa Maria “was and always has been” a key focal point for COVID-19 infections.

“That’s exactly where our viral evaluation clinic has been,” he said.

The Santa Maria Valley makes up nearly 45 percent of the county’s more than 32,900 confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to data tracking by Noozhawk.

Claire Wineman, president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties, which represents more than 170 agriculture shippers, labor contractors and other agribusinesses, pointed out the initial coronavirus testing requirements and public health guidance on who can receive a test as some of the early obstacles.

“Testing has been a moving target throughout this whole process, and that has been a challenge,” she said. “It changed in many cases on a weekly or daily or even hourly basis.”

Limitations of COVID-19 testing also included appointment wait times and turnaround time for receiving results.

“How long do I have to wait to get my test?” Wineman said. “And how long is it going to be to get my test results, and all of that fits together in terms of having actionable and timely information.

“If you can’t get tested for two days and you don’t get your results back for another 10 days,” she continued. “That was challenging for a long time, and it tended to correspond with when there was kind of greater need in terms of transmission in the community.”

Wineman emphasized that COVID-19 testing needs to be actionable and timely.

“Having access to information is important and can be a challenge,” she said. “It has been a challenge for us to consolidate that information on behalf of our members, but we are trying to make that a little bit easier because it can be a challenge to navigate the different options.”

— Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk@NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

[This story was originally published by Noozhawk.]

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