Chang W. Lee and Roni Caryn Rabin
Ten days in May. Twenty-four churches around New York City. Nearly 20,000 coronavirus tests.
Over the past few weeks, churches serving communities of color have been transformed overnight into mini-clinics offering free coronavirus tests to all comers. The initiative, a partnership of the churches, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office and Northwell Health, is an effort to expand testing among black and Hispanic citizens, who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
Black and Latino New Yorkers have succumbed to Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, at twice the rate of whites, a result of entrenched economic and health disparities, denser housing and a higher risk of exposure on the job.
Participants were asked to preregister by phone, but walk-ins were accommodated so long as they lined up six feet apart and wore masks. Among those who sought testing on a cool, sunny Wednesday in May were two teenage brothers who recently went to a hospital to take home their 50-year-old father, only to find he had died of the virus.
“We were expecting him to be released and were texting with him,” said one brother, who identified himself only as Angel.
“Then he stopped responding.”
A 61-year-old woman said she had taken the subway to work every day throughout the pandemic, but was waking in the middle of the night, short of breath. Another woman wanted a clean bill of health, so she could go to New Jersey to visit her 85-year-old mother; another wanted to know if it was safe for her to go back to work.
Results are now in from the first round of testing at the 24 churches. Of 1,000 residents who had symptoms and sought diagnostic testing, nearly 9 percent were positive for the coronavirus.
Of the 18,000 residents who underwent antibody testing, nearly one in three showed evidence of past exposure to the coronavirus.
An additional round of testing at churches in New York City, the Hudson Valley and on Long Island started June 1 and will continue through June 19. The effort has been so successful that it may continue this summer.
Many of those who wanted testing were philosophical about the pandemic. “Hopefully this will open people’s eyes not to take things for granted, to think about your loved ones, to think about your neighbors,” said Lillian Navedo, 61. “To not freak out, to exercise, to call the people you care about.”
“Take a walk every day, say your prayers if you believe. Be positive.”
Jonathan Roque, 56, senior pastor at Damascus Christian Church of Hunts Point, waited for antibody testing last month outside Christian Church John 3:16 in the Bronx’s Longwood section, with his son Brandon, 22, and daughter Imari, 18.
Household roles were reversed in March when Pastor Roque and his wife, Sonia, a nurse, were laid up with Covid-19. Brandon and Imari nursed them back to health.
“It doesn’t hit home till it happens to you,” Imari Roque said. “It was surreal.”
“My father’s not one to say he’s sick, and he has a high threshold for pain, but he looked pale, bluish,” Brandon Roque said. “It was scary. Every day we were hearing of someone in their 50s with diabetes who died, and my dad has diabetes.”
All four family members learned they had antibodies to the coronavirus — even Imari and Brandon, who were never sick. “It’s a relief,” Imari Roque said, but quickly added she was not planning to relax her precautions.
“I know I’m not superwoman,” she said. “I’m not going to do reckless things and risk reinfecting myself or reinfecting my parents.”
Testing brought together old friends after months of isolation, so there were a lot of socially distanced hugs. “My church friends are like my extended family. It was a happy moment,” said Renay Foster, 46, who went to Bethany Baptist Church in Brooklyn with her mother and daughters to get tested for antibodies.
Ms. Foster’s family had been hit hard by the coronavirus. She was laid off from her job on March 17; her 26-year-old daughter, Jazmine, got a pink slip the same day. A younger daughter, Jourdan, is a senior in high school, and the family’s sudden loss of income put her college plans in jeopardy.
The worst was yet to come. Ms. Foster’s father, Bernett Coleman, 70, a handyman who was a fixture in the neighborhood, came down with what they all mistook for a bad cold. When he couldn’t stand up on his own, his wife, Wanda, took him to the emergency room. He tested positive for the coronavirus and was admitted to the hospital, where he died 10 days later, on April 7.
On May 20, Ms. Coleman turned 68 — the first birthday Ms. Coleman celebrated without her husband since she was a teenager. They had been married 49 years.
Now the whole family is planning to move to North Carolina. “We just don’t want to be here anymore,” Ms. Foster said.
Carmen Mercado, 86, of the Bronx, has diabetes and hypertension. Though she has isolated herself to reduce the chances of exposure, she lives in an intergenerational household with her adult children, her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren. The entire family went in for testing together.
They were disappointed when they tested negative for antibodies. “It was a bummer,” said Ms. Mercado’s daughter, Mercedes Torres, 62. “I wanted to be positive with antibodies — it would mean our immune system had kicked in and if, God forbid, anything happens now, with flu season coming and the city reopening, and we don’t know who’s got it and who doesn’t — well, I was hoping we might have antibodies.”
Aurora Robinson, 62, and her mother, Arlene King-Robinson, 81, went to Bethany Baptist Church to be tested for antibodies, though neither had been sick.
Ms. Robinson, a professor who teaches at the Pratt’s Higher Education Opportunity Program, was eager for information because she is particularly vulnerable: She has a heart condition and pre-diabetes, had hip surgery recently and takes medication to suppress her immune system because of Crohn’s disease.
Ms. King-Robinson tested negative for antibodies, and Ms. Robinson tested positive, but said she was confused by the results. “I don’t know what to make of it, or if it’s valid,” she said. “I’m not sure how to utilize this information, considering the inconsistencies of the testing.”
She was concerned that people are letting their guard down.
“I walk down the street and see more people without masks on right now than I did before,” Ms. Robinson said. “It’s not just the young people — it’s the midrange age, the 30-ish, 40-ish. They’re oblivious. And it’s all people: black, white, pink and green. It has no gender, it has no ethnicity — it’s just denial.”