Environment & Health

Retail COVID-19 testing is a massive failure for black communities

Since the White House announced this “historic public-private partnership,” 63 sites have opened nationwide. Just eight are in black neighborhoods.
Olivia Obineme
Social worker Adarra Benjamin looks out the lobby window of a client's building.

Adarra Benjamin, a black 26-year-old home care worker in Chicago, lacks the luxury of staying home during the Covid-19 pandemic. She assists several elderly patients. Her work demands travel by public transit. Her duties — picking up groceries, running to the post office, counseling clients — have, amid the news of death and disease, devolved into a series of anxiety-inducing tasks.

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“I am afraid because my job consists of me not only going in and out of someone else’s home, but shopping for other people,” she said. “It just feels like panic.”

Adarra remains at risk as an essential worker. Chicago stands flush with coronavirus. Cook County, which includes Chicago, has the sixth-most cases of all counties in the country, according to a New York Times tracker, as of April 27. The virus continues to ravage the city’s predominantly black South Side, where Adarra lives with her mother. Recently, when Adarra’s cousin exhibited symptoms of Covid-19, particularly difficulty breathing, he struggled to obtain a test, going to the hospital twice before he received one testing positive.

Olivia Obineme

Adarra Benjamin always wears gloves and a mask before leaving the house for work.

The situation rattled Adarra. “It has honestly, like, put me into fear,” she said. “To know he went there and that they didn’t have a test to take immediately pushes me back, like, ‘Okay, maybe I could do more harm by going to get tested than I would just staying away.’”

“So now I am really confused as to should I get tested,” she said. “Do they even have enough tests?”

Key Findings

  • The Trump administration's retail pharmacy testing plan was supposed to reach everyone, but only 8 of the 63 sites running now are in predominantly black areas, which have been hit hardest by the pandemic.

Local activistspoliticians, and city data echo the concern about equitable access in Chicago. According to the Chicago Department of Public Health, black people in Chicago make up a majority of Covid-19 deaths, at 56 percent, as of April 26.

Yet for weeks, the black neighborhoods on the South Side of the city with the highest number of cases were tested at a lower rate than the whiter wealthy areas in the city center. It is a problem reflected statewide, and increasingly nationwide. Available data from the state of Illinois shows that even though black residents make up 37 percent of the state’s Covid-19 deaths, they only received 13 percent of the state’s tests, as of April 23.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Chicago serves as the model city of what the White House christened a month ago as an “extraordinary” and “historic” public-private partnership to offer free, accessible coronavirus testing across the country at retail pharmacies and grocery stores.

With three current sites (one recently closed), the Chicago area is among cities with the most retail testing sites in the nation. But a Type Investigations and Vox analysis shows the sites are largely inaccessible for residents in the hardest-hit areas: the city’s predominantly black neighborhoods. The closest retail drive-through testing site to Adarra is at least 18 miles away.

Key Findings

  • Chicago's black residents make up a majority of COVID-19 deaths, but the black neighborhoods on the South Side of the city were tested at a lower rate than the whiter wealthy areas in the city center.

At a press conference on Monday, President Trump touted the testing program, saying, “These private sector leaders along with others have been exceptional partners in an unprecedented drive to expand the states’ capabilities and our country’s capabilities.”

But more than a month after the program’s debut, the sluggish rollout and locations of the retail drive-throughs participating in the White House’s partnership have left cities and states scrambling to find solutions for testing, especially in majority-minority neighborhoods, where residents of color have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

The Trump administration promised widespread, retail-based testing, but the rollout was slow. Black communities have been devastated.

On March 13, the Trump administration announced its partnership with Walgreens, Walmart, Target, and CVS to provide a portion of their parking lots across the nation for free drive-through testing. The administration asserted that the plan would “meet the needs of the American public,” with Trump emphasizing that “we have many, many locations” and that “we cover very, very strongly our country — stores in virtually every location.”

White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx said the plan was expected to be so efficient that after scaling across the United States, “we want to bring this across the continent.” Moreover, partner stores professed a focus on the hardest-hit communities. Walgreens declared testing would focus on “our most vulnerable citizens,” and CVS said it would scale to quickly serve “the most vulnerable members of our communities.” The stock market rallied after the announcement. Rite Aid and Kroger joined the effort soon after.

Key Findings

  • The Chicago area has 3 retail testing sites open, but all are in predominantly white neighborhoods. The closest drive-thru testing site to the city's South Side neighborhood is 18 miles away.

Yet the ambition of this project is overshadowed by its failures, as Covid-19 infections increased exponentially in America’s urban centers. As of April 16, there were only 17 retail locations open. (Just a few days prior, on the 13th, NPR characterized retail drive-through testing as “largely nonexistent.” ) All of those stores, save three, are located in predominantly white areas. Between April 17 and 27, 43 more retail testing sites opened, but only five of those are in predominantly black areas.

A Health and Human Services spokesperson said the department is working with pharmacy and retail companies to “expand rapidly to areas that are under-tested and socially vulnerable” and that the department is “using data to locate sites in counties that are under-tested and socially vulnerable, especially those with high populations of black, Hispanic and rural Americans.” They noted that “as of April 24, 63 sites are testing Americans in 24 states.”

However, of the 63 testing sites operating, or announced to open as of April 24, only eight — about 13 percent — are in predominantly black neighborhoods. Black Americans make up 30 percent of Covid-19 patients, according to preliminary nationwide data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On the South Side of Chicago, the heart of the city’s black community, the retail testing centers are essentially a nonfactor. After watching the president’s store-based testing announcement, Illinois state Sen. Robert Peters said “it came off like this is more about highlighting all these people in this business space with no real concrete plan — it’s a pipe dream.”

Peters is one of the many black politicians and activists who, in recent weeks, have pushed for a South Side testing center to fill the gaps. Accessible testing is needed on the West Side, too. This month, Illinois state representative and board member of Loretto Hospital LaShawn K. Ford joined in a press conference outside Loretto to decry the lack of testing in the West Side community of Austin, Chicago, where about 80 percent of residents are African American.

About the reporter

Aaron Ross Coleman

Aaron Ross Coleman

Aaron Ross Coleman is an Ida B. Wells Fellow at Type Investigations. He writes at the intersection of race, business, and economics.

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