The City of Philadelphia's new mobile testing unit

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Philly has a new tool to combat viral spread in the city’s most vulnerable communities: a mobile testing truck.

Unveiled Monday by the Department of Public Health, it’s intended to be used when officials identify a COVID cluster, offering easy-access tests to people at settings like nursing homes or other care facilities. Quickly determining who is infected can help contain the outbreak, Health Commissioner Tom Farley said.

Farley noted the mobile unit will be most useful when the city is past the fall-winter surge, which saw cases spike to double the counts recorded during the spring peak.

“We actually need this less now than we will need as the case rates go down and we have to contain these very focused outbreaks,” Farley said during a press conference.

The truck can serve about 100 people a day via self-administered PCR tests, Farley said. Methods have evolved beyond the early, more invasive nasal swabs you might remember, and shouldn’t be too uncomfortable, he added.

Philadelphia came under fire in the spring for what some perceived as inadequate testing in those communities most likely to be affected by the pandemic.

Volunteer groups began to pick up the slack. A collective called the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, began running pop-up tests sites in Philly’s predominantly Black neighborhoods. The physicians used their own resources before eventually gaining a contract from the city to continue testing.

Philly then partnered with other neighborhood entities, including health clinics like Esperanza in Kensington and bolstered community health centers’ testing capabilities.

The city’s new truck is being launched in partnership with the Department of Parks and Recreation. When it’s not on a rapid response mission, it’ll be stationed at parks or rec centers around the city. Residents can check out a calendar on the health department website to nail down where the mobile unit will be, and when.

To be tested, patients standing on the truck’s exterior walk-up platform will hand their own tests to trained health department staff on the inside of the truck, behind a transparent barrier and using built-in gloves. There’s no cost for the test.

Patients should receive results within one to two days of being tested, Farley said.

Anthony Hatten, one of Philadelphia’s mobile COVID-19 testing facility instructors, demonstrates how the samples will be returned after patients self-swab Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

A one-year contract to bring testing where it’s needed most

Dr. Farley was joined by Parks and Rec official Orlando Rendon and Councilmember Curtis Jones at the truck unveiling at the Carousel House Rec Center in Parkside.

That site was chosen, Jones said, because of its proximity to several senior citizen homes.

“A mile up the road are at least six senior assisted living facilities where thousands of seniors who have limited mobility live,” Jones said. “If there is an outbreak, this van can be deployed to address testing.”

Overall, the Parkside neighborhood already has among the highest testing rates in the city right now, with about 630 tests per 10k residents over the last two weeks.

Other parts of the city have much lower rates. Testing is scarce among residents of North and lower Northeast Philly, even though in some cases, those neighborhoods are also seeing the highest rates of coronavirus infections.

Bridesburg’s 19137 zip code, for example, has seen an almost 25% COVID-19 infection rate over the last two weeks. However, only about 360 out of every 10k residents there have been tested, nearly half as many as in Parkside.

The new truck can be used to bring testing to areas where it’s been less frequent.

On Tuesday, for example, the mobile testing unit will be deployed to the Northeast Older Adult Center in Rhawnhurst, according to the department’s mobile testing calendar. That neighborhood has seen a 17% positivity rate in the last two weeks, among the highest in the city.

The truck set-up, which takes up a space around 30 feet long and 20 feet wide, is being operated by Aardvark. The logistics company that normally provides mobile retail spaces to companies like T-Mobile, but pivoted to mobile testing in the spring, said company account director Jonathan Waddell.

Paid for by the $92 million in CARES Act funding received by the city in June, Philly’s one-year contract with Aardvark will cost $400,000, Health Department spokesperson Jim Garrow said. It is set to expire in November 2021.

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...