While Maine has maintained one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 in the country, 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, says 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 says 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 says. “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 say, 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 says 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 says warm weather and more time outdoors likely helped drive down the number of cases. But she also credits the grassroots work of community organizations, like the New Mainers Public Health Initiative.
Executive Director Abdulkerim Said says when his organization first mobilized in the early days of the pandemic, there was frustration over a lack of support from the state. But now, he says, there's stronger collaboration , and some state grant funding.
"So resources that come to the community that can...double our work."
Said says he 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, Said says, marked a turning point in the community.
"Within four hours, B-Street tested 64 patients. All those 64 tests came back negative, which was good news for us."
Not only because people weren't sick. The negative results also eased some of the fears about testing itself, says Said.
On the morning of the most recent walk-in clinic, a steady stream of people line up to test. Many are mothers with kids in tow. Sirad Yonis says she wants her three boys tested before they go to school. But when one of her sons walks up to a window and spies the swab that will soon be inserted into his nose, she has to do some convincing: "Listen to me, listen. You no have coronavirus, is good. You have coronavirus, no go to school."
The testing also draws people like 80-year old Muhumed Saney. Speaking through a translator, he says he just wants to know if he has COVID-19.
"With my age, I’m an old guy. So I have to be cautious. I need to know."
He won't get his results for a few days. But a worker tells him that if he tests positive, he'll get information on where to isolate if he doesn't have a safe place to go.
By the end of the day, 118 people are 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 Dr. Nirav Shah said that his agency has been discussing the racial disparities associated with COVID-19. Initially, he says 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."
The state Department of Health and Human Services also announced earlier this month that it is seeking additional funding to support community based organizations that serve diverse populations. It's issued $1 million to 24 organizations for services provided through November
Originally published 6:14 p.m. September 11, 2020