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St. Joseph clinicians staff mobile COVID-19 response unit during Berks County stop

By Jennifer Vogelsong

Leroy Curtis was walking over a bridge near the YMCA in downtown Reading Sept. 11, when he heard music coming from a parking lot. He walked over to see what was going on.

What he found was a 25,000-pound, blue-and-white box truck converted into a mobile medical recreational vehicle.

Milling around it were representatives from several community partners who came together — albeit six feet apart — to offer free COVID-19 testing and education as part of the nation’s first mobile COVID-19 response unit.

Penn State Health St. Joseph joined with Latino Connection, Highmark Blue Shield and the Pennsylvania Department of Health to provide free, walk-up COVID-19 testing, bilingual educational materials and giveaways to anyone who wanted them.

The CATE, or Community Accessible Testing and Education, tour was the brainchild of Latino Connection CEO George Fernandez after he realized in April that the pandemic was having a disproportionate effect on Hispanic and Latino residents.

“In order to solve health care inequalities and reach our vulnerable and underserved communities, we know we need to meet our people where they are — quite literally,” he said. “We needed a COVID-19 movement with wheels.”

He floated his idea for a mobile testing and information unit that could bring health care and education into a community to Gov. Tom Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine.

By the end of August, the unit was ready to go. Downtown Reading was the 15th stop on a 34-stop tour around the commonwealth.

Curtis said he didn’t have any symptoms or exposure to the virus that he knew of but got tested anyway, “Just to be sure.”

Monica Rush, director of rehabilitation services at St. Joseph, swabbed Reading mayor Eddie Moran during the event. Berks County commissioner Michael Rivera spoke about how he contracted COVID-19 but still doesn’t know when or how he was exposed to the virus.

“I spend most of my time in my office or at home,” he said. “I don’t go out much, and when I do, I’m careful.”

Isaac Arevalo, 8, and his sister Sophia, 6, dug through bilingual educational materials to find the pens, water bottles, face masks and hand sanitizer in their event goodies bags, while their mom, Tamika Chaparro, sat down in a folding chair for the test.

The trio was heading from the YMCA to the park, when a volunteer from Latino Connection asked if they wanted to be tested.

“I figured, why not?” she said.

St. Joseph nurses and doctors, outfitted in personal protective equipment, explained what to expect during the nasal swab.

Laboratory Director Linda Gallagher said staff tested 105 people during the event and sent their specimens to a Department of Health lab. The department released results within two days.

“It’s important that anyone in the community who wants to know their status can do so in order to help keep the virus contained,” she said. “Especially since a significant number of people are asymptomatic, this really helps calm people’s fears.”

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