On a windy morning in May, a group of health care workers and community leaders gathered for a prayer in a Hobbs, N.M., park. They were preparing for two days of free COVID-19 testing organized for African Americans in the community.
"That just did something for everyone,” recalls Evelyn Rising, MS. “It just burgeoned us up and put smiles on our faces."
The event culminated weeks of determined preparation by Rising, the southeast regional Health Extension Officer for The University of New Mexico’s Health Extension Regional Offices (HERO) program, and her team.
Prior to the pandemic, Rising spent much of her time working one-on-one with community members. But she saw her free time evaporate as she monitored the COVID-19 information being shared by her fellow HEROs and soon became swamped with organizing food deliveries throughout Lea County, helping the homeless, and working with tenants and landlords worried about rent payments.
Then a new worry cropped up. Data showed that African Americans and other minorities were being disproportionally affected by COVID-19.
Because Lea County is home to one of the state’s largest African American populations, Arthur Kaufman, MD, UNM’s vice chancellor for community health and the primary investigator of the HERO program – suggested that Rising organize a free COVID-19 testing event in Hobbs.
Rising agreed right away. "If you're in medicine, you can't help but be concerned and try to see what you can do to make sure our communities are healthy,” she says.
The first step was to contact partners at Lovington-based Nor-Lea Hospital District to see if they could acquire COVID-19 test kits. Through the work of the hospital’s nurse manager, Tammy Armitige, RN, and its CEO, David Shaw, Nor-Lea was able to secure 300 kits.
Rising’s next dilemma was how to get the word out.
"We're a very unique community, in that we all work together to strengthen Lea County and keep it going,” she says. She first contacted community leaders from the local NAACP chapter and the clergy, knowing that they would pass the word to their membership and their families.
The team decided that the two days before Mother’s Day would offer a great opportunity for people to help their families stay healthy during the holiday, but they still needed a location for the event.
"I had to take into consideration what is the gathering place because every community has one," Rising explains.
Conferring with Armitige and Shaw, she chose Booker T. Washington Park for its historical significance to the community, and because it is within walking distance to low-income housing. The city and county approved of their decision and so preparations began.
Two drive-thru testing sites were set up, with an additional walk-up site. "People were able to walk up and get tested without wondering how they were going to get in line without vehicles,” she explains.
Figuring out how to staff these sites was another challenge. Luckily, once word spread about the event, Rising received offers from nurses across the county volunteering to help the nurses from Nor-Lea.
Local organizations including churches, the local electric company and the CVS pharmacy also chipped in by donating meals and water for the event. The county set up a cooling tent for the health care workers, while Nor-Lea reserved rooms at local hotels for any patients who tested positive but didn’t have a place to quarantine.
"It was a success because everybody gladly took up their part and nobody shirked,” Rising says. “It was just, ‘This is it, and this is what we're going to get done.’”
At the end of the two days, 179 Lea County residents were tested. "It was the most beautiful unification I've ever seen," Rising says. Thanks to the event’s success, a minority testing event has already occurred in Albuquerque and another community-wide event will be held on June 4 in Hobbs.
Rising is grateful to her partners from Nor-Lea and the New Mexico Department of Health, but especially to Kaufman for recognizing the need for such an event. "If it wasn't for him, none of this would've probably been done,” she says.
Rising hopes that people will continue to wash their hands, clean their homes and wear masks. But testing remains her primary focus.
"I think everyone needs to be tested,” she says. “It's not just about minorities. It's about all of us being safe for our families and friends, and encouraging others to get out and get tested."