Clinic facilities

Neighborhood clinic in Providence, RI opens nation’s first COVID-19 testing center

Rhode Island will launch the first federally funded COVID-19 testing center at a clinic in Providence, Gov. Daniel J. McKee and White House COVID-19 coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha announced Thursday.

Clínica Esperanza, in the Olneyville section of town, will allow eligible residents who don’t have insurance coverage to get the antiviral Paxlovid at no cost, removing a major barrier to treatment for community residents.

The clinical is located in one of the poorest areas of the city which has been among the hardest hit by the virus. More than one in four people, on average, who have been tested at the clinic in the past 12 months — 27% — tested positive for COVID-19, said Dr. Annie DeGroot, the clinic’s volunteer medical director. During the January surge, she said, the average test positivity rate was 67%.

“The population we serve is an extremely poor community [with] lots of immigrants,” DeGroot said. “For the people of this district, there is a real problem of access to care.

Patients getting tested at the clinic usually don’t have insurance or enough to cover the cost of Paxlovid, DeGroot said, which costs about $800 for the five-day course. About 80% of people tested at the clinic are uninsured or underinsured, she said, and all of the clinic’s regular patients have no coverage.

The Food and Drug Administration has authorized Paxlovid for anyone who is at increased risk of serious illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider anyone more than 50 at an increased risk of serious consequences.

“We need to make this disease something that doesn’t kill people in large numbers, that becomes truly preventable,” Jha said, speaking from a distance during McKee’s press conference. “If you look at the data from Rhode Island… what you see is that there have been almost three to four times as many infections in cases over the past two months. But fundamentally, very little change in serious illnesses and deaths have been relatively stable. »

Jha said Rhode Island has “done an amazing job” vaccinating residents and “making treatments widely available.”

But disparities have persisted in the accessibility of these therapies, which health officials have taken into account when choosing the location of the first test center to treat. While residents of wealthier communities are more likely to know about Paxlovid and get treatment from their primary care providers, residents of poorer immigrant neighborhoods are often unaware they might be eligible for treatment, a said Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, a public health advocate who serves in the state Equity Council. He said one of the challenges is spreading information — and dispelling misinformation — about available treatments.

Although Rhode Island has one of the highest overall COVID-19 vaccination rates in the country, Rodriguez said, he worries because immunity is waning and much of the population hasn’t been reinforced. About 43% if white residents received at least one booster dose, compared to only 28% of Hispanic/Latino residents, status data shows. If we see cases increase this spring when people are outside, he said, what will happen when people return in the fall?

Health journalist Lynn Arditi can be reached at larditi@thepublicsradio.org. Follow her on Twitter @LynnArditi