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caption: A line forms on Thursday, July 10, 2020, at a mobile COVID-19 testing site in Kent.
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A line forms on Thursday, July 10, 2020, at a mobile COVID-19 testing site in Kent.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Lines for this Covid-19 testing van stretch for hours in King County, and now it’s running out of money

Bashir Yusuf had a runny nose. And so, having heard that people with Covid-like symptoms should get tested, he made plans to do so.

He took the day off from his job as a machine operator at a factory in Kent and went to the mobile test site at Rainier Beach High School.

“I have four kids, so I don’t want to go home and not know what I have, you know what I mean?” Yusuf said. “I just want to make sure this runny nose is not Covid-19.”

He secured a spot fifth from the end of a line that stretched down two blocks. Then he turned the corner and ran down another block. Then he jumped the curb into the high school parking lot, and snaked back and forth between orange traffic cones until it finally reached a van with health care workers and their long swabs.

Yusuf expected to wait.

“I’m just going to stick it out til 3 o’clock,” he said. “See what happens.”

It was noon.

Created as a low-barrier way for people vulnerable to Covid-19 to get testing without an appointment or insurance, the UW Medicine mobile testing van is now overwhelmed by demand.

The impact of the long lines is more than a nuisance – it imposes new barriers on access to testing at best and, at worst, can ruin trust among communities already reluctant to get tested, threatening the goal of containing the disease among King County’s most vulnerable communities.

Now, the van is almost out of money.

One reason demand appears to be so high is the mobile testing van is absorbing patients that other clinics can’t, or won’t test because they don’t meet stricter criteria – people with no symptoms and no close contact with a coronavirus-positive case. Those patients are seeking peace of mind, or need the testing to fulfill an employer’s return-to-work requirement.

Running out of money

A large purple UW Medicine-branded tarp stretches across the front of the van, barely obscuring the name of the rental company loaning it out.

The van serves up to around 200 people a day, according to UW Medicine, and rotates among south King County locations identified for their high rates of confirmed cases of Covid-19 and scarcity of testing sites. Tuesdays in Auburn, Wednesdays and Saturdays at Rainier Beach High School in south Seattle, Thursdays in Kent, and Friday at South Seattle College.

Less than two hours after the van had opened one recent Wednesday at the Rainier Beach site, a healthcare worker taped a handwritten sign to the back of the last car in line. It stated: “TESTING CLOSED TODAY!”

“There are some days where the line is long that we actually have to close the line,” said Dr. Lisa Chew, medical director for the UW mobile testing van.

Chew attributes the lines to skyrocketing demand and a time-consuming patient registration process, she said. When someone arrives at the test site, a health care worker greets them and instructs them to call a number where they can give their name, date of birth and contact information.

Using a call center to collect patient information is more sanitary than passing papers around, Chew said. But it can take time. The mobile sites serve people who need interpretation or other help because they have limited English proficiency or are deaf or blind.

Recently, call center staff increased to seven people -- from four or five -- and the registration process has gotten a bit smoother, Chew said.

Community donations funneled through UW Medicine’s Emergency Response Fund are what’s fueling the van’s operations, Chew said. The program started May 23, and the $1 million budget was expected to last three months.

Instead, the van will run out of funding at the end of July. Chew said they’re working to get more money so the van can continue testing.

Even more money would allow the van expand testing hours and the number of days per city, Chew said.

For context, $1 million isn’t much when it comes to Covid-19 emergency spending. Washington’s Emergency Operations Center estimates state government has spent over $678 million on the Covid-19 emergency so far, most going toward personal protective equipment.

King County has approved $145 million as of the end of June for the emergency, including $12 million in masks and sanitizer, $2 million in childcare for first responders, and $6 million “to promote tourism and attract tourists to the county” specifically in “historically disadvantaged communities.”

The County Council is considering spending just over $1 million for 24/7 nursing care for two people with high medical needs in jail.

Public Health – Seattle & King County is looking to add two more testing sites, including a location in south King County. Details are not public about where those new sites will go and when they will open.

'They don't want to be stigmatized'

When the mobile van started coming to Auburn, Esther DeBrum worked hard to convince folks in the Marshallese community to get tested. DeBrum even made fliers and took them around.

“A lot of them didn't want to get tested, they're afraid to get tested. They don't want to be stigmatized,” she said.

DeBrum is the outreach coordinator with the Marshallese Women’s Association and serves as a cultural navigator for the Pacific Islander Health Board.

At the test sites, she translates for people originally from the Marshall Islands, a nation in the Pacific Ocean, about halfway between Hawaii and Australia.

The United States conducted 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958 – including one over 1,000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima – leading to widespread, far-reaching health, social, and economic impacts that reverberate today.

Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians have gotten Covid-19 at a rate eight times higher than white people in Washington state, and have been hospitalized at a rate 10 times higher, according to the Washington State Department of Health.

That’s because a lot of Marshallese families live with multiple generations in one house and many work in essential jobs, DeBrum said.

The long lines are more than just a hassle when someone who is the main support of their family takes the day off of work, only to be turned away hours before the test site is supposed to close.

“That's a lot of pain on my side because then it falls back on me,” DeBrum said.

She recounts a conversation she’s had twice recently: “‘You told us to take one day off, now what are you gonna do? I took a day off. Now you guys are saying I can’t get tested?”

“So the whole community is going to feel like: This is going to happen to me, so why bother?” Esther DeBrum

One bad experience can ruin the trust of the entire community, she said.

“If somebody experienced something, the whole community is going to know about it,” DeBrum said. “So the whole community is going to feel like this is going to happen to me, so why bother?”

Despite that, some people still do come out and contend with the long lines – suppressing human needs in the process. DeBrum recently accompanied some children to a drugstore at the perimeter of the testing site in Kent to use the bathroom and buy snacks, because their mother couldn’t get out of line. Tuesday in Auburn she bought Popsicles for children who were crying because they were so hot waiting in line.

King County’s webpage listing free test sites includes community clinics, but some people need to keep their children with them and are afraid of Covid exposure by visiting a clinic, DeBrum said.

Other patients are being directed to the mobile test van because clinics have stricter criteria for testing.

At the Rainier Beach test site on recent Wednesday, Jimmy and Sadie Sanders were inching forward in line, windows rolled down on their truck, two hours into an odyssey they expected would take another three hours.

That morning, Jimmy Sanders woke up with a temperature over 100 degrees.

A clinic in Covington, where he lives, offered him a virtual consultation with a doctor instead of a test because he didn’t have close contact with someone who tested positive for Covid-19.

Instead, they drove a half an hour to Rainier Beach.

“Nothing satisfies you more than actually having the test that tells you ‘yes’ or ‘no.’” Sadie Sanders said. “We’re 65 plus, so we don’t want to sit there and not know for sure.”