The number of people testing positive for COVID-19 is surging. And there is also a growing number of people getting tested for the disease, for the first time. A program based at a historically Black university in Durham is organizing COVID-19 testing and collecting valuable data at the same time.
I wanted to find out more and get a peek at the survey designed to improve testing and messaging in underserved communities. The quickest way to accomplish that goal was to get tested myself.
It was sunny, bright and unseasonably comfortable on a recent Saturday at White Rock Baptist Church in Durham, where I decided to get a COVID-19 test. The large parking lot behind the church had been turned into a drive-up testing site with four tented stations. Almost everyone wore a "Team NCCU" t-shirt.
NCCU, North Carolina Central University, was awarded $1 million through the North Carolina Coronavirus Relief Fund to test and engage underserved communities in nine counties. Its newly formed ACCORD Team - Advanced Center for COVID19 Related Disparities - would test and question mostly Black populations in Anson, Cabarrus, Durham, Granville, Halifax, New Hanover, Rowan, Vance, and Warren counties.
"We definitely have to have a better understanding of everything that's going on," said Dr. Seronda Robinson, chair of the Department of Public Health Education at NCCU. "Becasue COVID is impacting us more than just with the infection rate. It's impacting all of the various dimensions of wellness."
Before I could get my test, I pulled up to a welcome tent where I gave the expected information - name, address, email, phone number - so RTW Health Services would know where to send my test results. The form also asked your race, if you are employed, retired or a student. Any allergies? Cancer? Tobacco use? The list was long.
Deep into the ACCORD survey, they also asked if a close friend or family member had tested positive for COVID. Has COVID affected your employment? And they wanted to know which reasons would stop or delay you from getting a COVID vaccine - Do not trust the government? Do not trust the medical system? Want others to get the vaccine first."
So far, 2,000 people have been tested through ACCORD, with the help of many partners, including recent graduates of Duke University's Physician Assistant Program. About 1,100 surveys have been filled out.
Ben Money, deputy secretary for Health Services at the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, says this kind of work is needed.
"Knowing who is COVID positive and where they're located really is key to us being able to blunt the spread of the virus," said Money.
Money says he knows there is a lot of fatigue and frustration surrounding COVID, but getting the vaccine is critical to move past this pandemic.
“We are very concerned about the messaging and making sure people understand how this vaccine was developed," said Money. "It was developed with safety standards in mind. It was developed with the same protocols that have been used for flu vaccines, and other vaccines for decades.”
Money says there are plans in place to make sure distribution of a vaccine is equitable across the state. That's part of the reason for the survey, to hold health professionals and the government accountable for making sure Black, Latino and Native American communities are fairly treated during the pandemic.
Dr. Deepak Kumar is director of the Biomedical Biotechnology Research Institute at NCCU and leads the ACCORD Team. He says they wouldn’t be able to do their job if there wasn’t a level of trust in the communities they serve.
“I think a lot of times that the onerous is only on underserved communities to trust. But it should be on others, also, to become more trustworthy," said Kumar.
Kumar and the ACCORD Team will wrap up their testing and survey December 5th, in Vance County. My COVID-19 test came back negative.