The Chester County Health Department is conducting COVID-19 testing at KACS on Fridays through June 12. There’s no cost and no registration required.

By Tara Smith, HKS Communications Coordinator

On Monday, May 18th, La Comunidad Hispana (LCH) reached out to the United Way of Southern Chester County (UWSCC) with a request for funding from their COVID-19 Response Fund. LCH needed $75,000 to fund a mobile testing unit, healthcare supplies, and educational materials to initiate COVID testing at local mushroom farms. Within 24 hours, Carrie Freeman, CEO of UWSCC, had created a funding consortium with the American Mushroom Institute and the United Way of Chester County (UWCC). Each organization contributed $25,000 to fund this vital community health initiative.

When a community comes together to address an urgent need so quickly and effectively, it’s easy to miss the significance of the wealth of social capital that’s necessary for this kind of collaboration to take place. Like the intricate webs of mushroom mycelia that grow below the surface, the roots of community engagement and relationships are so deep in Kennett it’s difficult to trace exactly where the story begins. But, appropriately enough during this pandemic, the action began on a Zoom meeting.

The Urgency of Widespread Testing

Throughout the pandemic, the Southern Chester County Opportunity Network (SCCON) has hosted a weekly Zoom call for leaders in the social sector. On one of these calls several weeks ago, Luis Tovar, Chair of ACOLA (the Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs), shared that he’d reached out to the health department with a concern about COVID-19 in the farmworker population. He highlighted the urgent need for mobile testing and more accessible educational materials. “At the time, no one could even get testing,” says Kate Daneker, Director of Social Initiatives for Square Roots Collective and host of the SCCON calls. But then she received a call from the Department of Emergency Services. And because so many key community leaders were all together on the SCCON call the following week, what ensued was an amazingly rapid and effective collaboration between the Chester County Health Department, the Chester County Department of Emergency Services, nonprofits, and local government, Daneker says.

The wider network of county resources maximizes the effectiveness of this community effort. “The proactive community collaboration occurring in Kennett Square made our effort just that much more efficient and meaningful,” says County Health Director Jeanne Casner. This collaboration and their partnership with LCH, she notes, enabled the department to offer testing efficiently in the community as well as on farms to limit spread among a critical workforce.

While the existing relationships between organizations are an important part of the story, so are the relationships that LCH has established through their proactive and holistic work throughout the community over the years. “LCH offers mobile wellness programs at area mushroom farms throughout the year, and we feel fortunate to have had relationships with different mushrooms farms already,” says LCH Community Engagement Manager Amanda Blevins. She says they’ve also started to work with new partners in the mushroom industry as a result of this initiative. “We’re so thankful to all three of our community partners (UWSCC, UWCC, and AMI) who clearly cared about making this testing available. We really do feel their support and wouldn’t have been able to do it without them—and the employees as well as the employers at the farms are grateful.”

Discussions about how to handle the need for testing at mushroom farms had begun in April among members of the Mushroom Farmers of Pennsylvania (MFPA), a committee of the American Mushroom Institute (AMI), says AMI President Rachel Roberts. “We quickly recognized the need for testing—not only to protect the health and safety of all mushroom producers, but also to reassure their wider communities that COVID-19 best practices and measures have been, and will continue to be, in place. So when the United Way of Southern Chester County reached out to collaborate on funding for LCH to make additional testing available for mushroom workers, it was a welcome request.”

As a result of this combined support and expertise, almost a thousand tests were administered last week at farms and food cupboards in Kennett, Avon Grove, and Oxford. Not all of those tested are farmworkers, Daneker says. While health department staff is carrying out testing at the food cupboards directly, for farmworkers as well as for members of the wider community, LCH is doing the testing at the farms. “On Friday, May 29, the Chester County Health Department tested 240 people at KACS for COVID-19,” says Leah M. Reynolds, Executive Director at KACS. “Many of these folks said they needed the test to return to work.” They will offer testing on Fridays through June 12th from 2:30 to 5:30pm. Accessibility is key to the success of the program. “There’s no cost, and no registration or doctor’s order is required,” says Reynolds.

Testing + Education = Effective Intervention

Testing at the food cupboards enabled LCH and the Health Department to reach a wider group of vulnerable people not just with testing but also with educational materials including instructions for home monitoring and quarantining a member of the family who’s positive, and supplies like thermometers and face masks. “It’s not just a question of translating materials into Spanish,” Daneker says, “but also creating clear visuals for those with limited reading skills.” Another major gap in communication with members of our community who are from Guatemala was bridged this week when Bruno Garcia Ortiz, a Garage Community and Youth Center alumnus and a native Guatemalan who speaks both Mam and English, was able to translate a message from the Health Department and record a video with critical information about COVID-19 for Mam speakers.

Although much has been uncertain about the virus, the one thing that has always been clear is the absolutely crucial role of testing and education to stop the spread. “Nothing is more important to stop the virus growth in our area than identifying those who have it and getting them to quarantine. There are too many asymptomatic people spreading it unwittingly in our area,” says Freeman. Daneker emphasizes that the higher number of known cases of COVID-19 in Kennett is because of this critical and widespread testing. “Other communities haven’t tested and gotten there yet,” she says.

“There’s a high level of misinformation coming from many different sources,” says LCH CEO Mariana Izraelson, which is why education is an essential complement to testing. Making sure that the community has clear and accurate health information at all times, and not only during the COVID-19 crisis, is part of the mission of LCH, which is a fully bilingual organization that offers healthcare services for all. “Something as simple as giving someone a thermometer and instructions on how to use it to discern COVID symptoms can be life-changing for people, helping everyone to make informed, proactive decisions about care,” says Izraelson.

The wider community can join this network of collaborative care in our community by supporting these nonprofits. LCH and KACS both offer volunteer opportunities under normal circumstances. Through the pandemic, the best way to help them, as well as the United Way, to continue their critical work is through financial donations.