Special to Iredell Free News

RALEIGH — The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services has launched the Community testing in High-priority And Marginalized Populations (CHAMP) Initiative to increase access to no-cost COVID-19 testing for African American, LatinX/Hispanic and American Indian communities that currently have limited testing sites.

A disproportionately high percentage of North Carolina’s confirmed cases of COVID-19 have occurred among historically marginalized populations. Mounting evidence shows the members of these populations experience higher rates of COVID-19 mortality and serious complications.

“Increasing access to free testing is key to our ability to respond to and contain COVID-19,” said NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen. “This targeted testing initiative seeks to confront historical health disparities by increasing COVID-19 testing capacity in underserved communities across the state.”

As many as 300 temporary testing sites will be deployed throughout the month of July, including drive-thru and walk-up sites. North Carolina has identified two vendors to begin this work, Vidant Health and Orig3n, Inc. Both vendors will deploy new no-cost testing sites to underserved communities identified by DHHS and bring additional lab capacity to the state.

The initiative will increase testing capacity in more than 100 ZIP codes, providing testing access for 2.2 million African American, LatinX/Hispanic and American Indian individuals.

Residents of the selected areas could face heightened risk of COVID-19 infection for many reasons, including close proximity of housing, challenges to practice social distancing, occupational exposure and barriers in transportation, as well as historical obstacles to access health care, a concentration of unmet health needs and chronic disease burden.

Many front-line and essential workers are from historically marginalized populations and face even higher risk of exposure to infection as they are over-represented in industries deemed as essential workers supporting the entire state.

In order to effectively reach underserved populations, the CHAMP Initiative emphasizes a community testing approach. The awarded vendors are required to connect individuals with medical homes and provide services with culturally and linguistically appropriate standards, working within existing trusted community partnerships; additionally, no payment from the individual will be needed for the testing. Insurance, if available, will be billed but no co-pays or cost-sharing will be asked of anyone seeking testing.

Those who are uninsured will have full access to free testing at these sites.

“It is critical we make testing available in trusted and accessible places for North Carolina historically marginalized populations beginning with meeting people where they are, in their communities,” said NC Medicaid Chief Medical Officer Dr. Shannon Dowler.

To select target geographic areas, the CHAMP Initiative identified North Carolina communities with low testing capacity and high African American, Latinx/Hispanic and/or American Indian populations. Within that group of communities, CHAMP further prioritized communities that had a higher concentration of elderly populations with multiple chronic conditions and higher rates of construction and seasonal farm work.

The CHAMP Initiative builds on earlier measures North Carolina has taken to expand testing access across the state, including:

♦ Focusing on rapidly increasing testing of people who may not currently have symptoms, but may have been exposed to COVID-19.

♦ Making facility-wide testing available to residents and staff in all North Carolina skilled nursing facilities.

♦ Introducing new online tools to increase access to testing.