“We were all caught pretty off guard when the pandemic hit, but I think that using the resources that we have available to us we have been able to meet the demand at every step.”
On March 28, Boston opened up its first and only coronavirus testing site for first responders and health care workers, at Suffolk Downs.
The old racehorse track was lined with cones, and East Boston Neighborhood Health Center (EBNHC) staff donned PPE to administer the nasal-swab testing to people driving through in their vehicles.
At the time, EBNHC CEO Manny Lopes knew that his staff would additionally be called on to test the masses for the novel coronavirus, so he approached the city prior to opening up the city’s first mobile site for COVID-facing employees.
“It hit me somewhat early on in the pandemic that we had an important role to play, particularly around testing,” Lopes said. “Thankfully we have the vaccine now, but testing was one of the few tools that we knew at least to try to stop the spread of the virus.”
Ten months later, more than 65% of EBNHC staff members have received a dose of the Moderna vaccine to fight against COVID-19, and the center has managed and conducted more than 100,000 tests across the city. The operation went from providing testing exclusively to frontline workers in the spring, to running popup sites in various neighborhoods. Lopes said his staff was able to do large-scale screening for the virus once more testing materials were made available. Suffolk Downs, he noted, served as sort of a test run for what was to come months down the line.
“Dealing with a defined group, it helped us understand what we [needed] to do to get to the larger population,” Lopes said, adding that there were two goals in mind: to provide testing to the people on the frontlines caring for ill patients, and to learn from that experience in order to screen asymptomatic patients for the virus at a larger scale.
Lopes also chairs the Boston Public Health Commission Board, a body led by the city’s Chief of Health and Human Services Marty Martinez. Martinez said the Boston Resiliency Fund, which was established by Mayor Marty Walsh to respond to the needs of people impacted by the virus, gave money to community health centers wanting to expand their COVID-19 testing abilities early on. Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury and EBNHC stepped up to the plate.
Looking back, Martinez said the city wanted to make testing a key part of its strategy in fighting against COVID-19, and knew it would need to partner with health centers to achieve that goal. EBNHC, the state’s largest community health center, which has 1,400 people on its staff, was then asked to contract with the city to provide popup testing in various neighborhoods and communities.
Also, a COVID-19 testing department was formed, and 35 people were hired to perform PCR nasal swab tests to residents in Brighton, South Boston, South End, Dorchester, Mattapan, East Boston, and eventually Hyde Park. Martinez said data helped them decide where they needed the EBNHC team the most.
“We look at both, Where is testing not happening? and then, How do we work in those neighborhoods to make it accessible?” Martinez added. “We also look at places that have high positivity rates.”
The HHS chief said moving the testing location around every two weeks ensures that testing is made easy and accessible in areas with high virus positivity rates and low testing rates. East Boston, at a time, was identified as a community disproportionately impacted by the virus.
“In the beginning of this pandemic, supplies were limited, the number of test kits were limited, and people were afraid also to test,” Martinez said. “We had to do a lot of that legwork, but East Boston did a lot of that work because they’ve had to already do that in their community.”
Part of the legwork included hiring a full-time director for the newly created COVID-19 testing department. Kelly Hennessy, a nurse practitioner at the EBNHC, early on expressed an interest in leading a pandemic response team. She was then given a budget, hiring, managing, and operational abilities. Among other changes, Hennessy brought on a team of “swabbers,” or medical assistants and nurses, who could test people in East Boston at mobile or walkup sites and travel to other areas of the city when needed.
The ramp up in testing came in the spring, when labs procured more tests and were able to ship them out everywhere. All things considered, Hennessy said that the decision to perform tests on asymptomatic patients was a “no brainer.”
“We just knew that this pandemic would disproportionately impact our communities, especially in East Boston, where so many of our patients don’t have the luxury to work from home. Whether combatting the pandemic or not, they’re out working every single day,” Hennessy said.
The city’s team has never dealt with anything close to the mass testing they are doing now. Hennessy’s department is now conducting close to 5,000 tests per week across the city.
“We were all caught pretty off guard when the pandemic hit, but I think that using the resources that we have available to us we have been able to meet the demand at every step, while also pivoting and adjusting our workflows to meet the needs of the community,” Hennessy said.
Lopes said the testing model or “playbook” that Hennessy and her team have created will be replicated should the health center play a role in vaccinating the general public. The mass testing effort led by the EBNHC, Martinez said, has proven to be quite effective.
Lopes advises those looking to replicate the COVID-19 Testing Department model to leverage community partnerships and agencies. He also said such efforts could be applied to vaccinating the masses once more vaccines become available.
Moving forward, Boston will open its first mass vaccination site at Fenway Park, where thousands are expected to receive the vaccine. Lopes hopes that EBNHC gets the green light to administer the vaccine to hundreds of people, and eventually thousands down the line.
In the meantime, Hennessy and Martinez are working to get the word out that taking the same precautionary measures which have been drilled in everyone’s mind since the start of the pandemic will eventually get us out of it.
“To live with COVID,” Martinez said, “you’ve got to be able to get tested when you need it, and you’ve got to be able to trace it so you can prevent spread and make sure people can get taken care of by our hospitals.”
“If we want to get back to our normal routines, testing is a priority, even after the vaccine,” Hennessy said. “In order to have that herd-immunity status, people will still need testing to make sure they’re not infected with COVID, not spreading this to others in the community.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its Pandemic Democracy Project and ongoing initiatives to report on housing, homelessness, and related issues. To support this kind of independent news coverage, please contribute at givetobinj.org.
Jordan is a journalist with 7 News and a past president of Society of Professional Journalists-New England.