With schools in the Lewiston-Auburn area starting next week, the immigrant community has ramped up efforts to get families tested. Credit: Patty Wight / Maine Public

Maine has maintained one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 in the country, but it made national headlines earlier this year for having one of the highest positivity rates for Black and African American people.

So with schools in the Lewiston-Auburn area starting next week, the immigrant community has ramped up efforts to get families tested. The goal is to catch and contain cases quickly to ensure a smooth start to the school year. Preventing the spread of COVID-19 takes vigilance and, sometimes, a lot of knocking on doors.

A group of five health outreach workers from the New Mainers Public Health Initiative in Lewiston is canvassing a section of Auburn where many immigrant families live. Dressed in bright blue T-shirts that say ‘Together We Fight COVID-19,’ they encourage residents to come to a free walk-in clinic that offers COVID-19 testing.

These outreach workers have knocked on dozens of doors in the days leading up to the clinic. They also hand out masks and small bottles of hand sanitizer for kids to bring to school.

The program manager for the initiative, Hamda Ahmed, said a prime goal of the testing clinic is to catch cases of COVID-19 before kids return to school. It’s also an opportunity to provide more education about the disease, a subject that she said many people in this community wanted to avoid a few months ago.

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding or it became taboo in the New Mainer community,” Ahmed said. “Some of them just wait at home, they stay at home without calling their providers, being ashamed to tell others.”

Many didn’t want to get tested, advocates said, because a positive result presented a set of problems beyond just being sick. Immigrant families are often large and live in small apartments, with no place to isolate. If a parent tested positive, who would take care of the children and go to work?

The B-Street Health Center mounted a testing effort in the spring that uncovered troubling results. Of 90 people in the downtown community who were tested, nearly one-third were positive for COVID-19, and most were members of the immigrant community. At the time, B-Street CEO Coleen Elias expressed concerns that the disease was likely even more widespread. But three months later, she said the positivity rate among those tested at the health center has gone down.

“There is still some transmission in the community, but it does seem to have decreased since May, which is reassuring,” Elias said.

Elias said warm weather and more time outdoors likely helped drive down the number of cases. But she also credited the grassroots work of community organizations, such as the New Mainers Public Health Initiative.

When the organization first mobilized in the early days of the pandemic, there was frustration over a lack of support from the state, Executive Director Abdulkerim Said said. But now there’s stronger collaboration and some state grant funding.

“So resources that come to the community that can … double our work,” he said.

Said was able to hire six community outreach workers. They educate people about physical distancing and masks. They connect people who have COVID-19 to social services. And they advocate for more testing, like the walk in clinic. The first clinic, about a month ago marked a turning point in the community, Said said.

“Within four hours, B-Street tested 64 patients. All those 64 tests came back negative, which was good news for us,” he said.

The negative results also eased some of the fears about testing itself, Said said.

On the morning of the most recent walk-in clinic, a steady stream of people lined up to test. Many were mothers with kids in tow. Sirad Yonis said she wanted her three boys tested before they go to school. But when one of her sons walked up to a window and spied the swab that will soon be inserted into his nose, she had to do some convincing.

“Listen to me, listen. You no have coronavirus, is good. You have coronavirus, no go to school,” she told him.

The testing also drew people like 80-year old Muhumed Saney. Speaking through a translator, he said he just wanted to know if he had COVID-19.

“With my age, I’m an old guy. So I have to be cautious. I need to know,” he said.

He wouldn’t get his results for a few days. But a worker told him that if he tested positive, he would get information on where to isolate if he didn’t have a safe place to go.

By the end of the day, 118 people were tested.

Despite the strides made in the Lewiston-Auburn new Mainer community, the rate of COVID-19 among the Black and African American population in Maine hasn’t budged much from the early days of the pandemic, still hovering around 20 percent in a group that makes up less than two percent of the overall population.

At a recent press briefing, Maine Center for Disease Control Director Nirav Shah said his agency has been discussing the racial disparities associated with COVID-19. Initially, he said the state focused on offering social supports.

“I think the next phase of this is going to be going beyond offering and really ensuring that uptake is robust,” Shah said.

The state Department of Health and Human Services also announced earlier this month that it seeks additional funding to support community-based organizations that serve diverse populations. It’s issued $1 million to 24 organizations for services provided through November.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.

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