Hundreds more Imperial County residents will soon be able to get checked for COVID-19 after state officials designated the area a “testing desert.”

County officials said Monday the state is expected to open a local testing site by May 4. The site will be able to test 130 residents a day, said Dr. Stephen Munday, the county’s health officer.

Testing will rotate among three locations in the mostly undeveloped county so more people have access. Where those will be has yet to be disclosed.

Why this matters

Only about 1,600 of Imperial County’s 181,000 residents have been tested for COVID-19 because of a lack of access to testing. More testing is needed to know how widespread the virus is in the largely rural region.

Munday said access to testing has been “a huge problem” during the coronavirus pandemic. As of Monday, officials said fewer than 1,900 people in the county have been tested. The county, which stretches from the U.S.-Mexico border to eastern Riverside County, has 181,000 residents.

“It’s a huge increase in our local capacity,” Munday said at a news conference. It also will help healthcare workers when “we really need to get test results back in a very timely fashion,” to make decisions about a patient’s care, he said.

Munday said the site won’t offer walk-up testing. Residents will still need to be referred by a health provider.

“If a provider feels that they have a patient that they want to have tested, we’re going to make that available to them,” he said. “And that’s all of the providers in our community. Whether it’s a hospital, our clinics, our outpatient providers, we’re going to make this equally available to everybody.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced last week that the state was partnering with Minnesota-based OptumServe to open 80 testing sites across California. “End-to-end testing” will be provided, meaning the locations will handle the collection of specimens and report the results to the patients.

Newsom said officials used a heat map to define “testing deserts” and decide the new locations. The sites “are focused from a socioeconomic lens, focusing on black and brown communities and focusing on rural communities,” he said during a news conference Wednesday.

Largely agriculture-driven, Imperial County “struggles with socioeconomic issues as a result of lack of job opportunities in higher paying industries and low educational achievement,” according to a 2019 economic report. Its 20.5% unemployment rate last month was the second highest in the state, and the county’s homeless population saw a major spike in recent years that has remained high since.

Last week, county officials told inewsource they’re unaware of any coordinated testing effort for the region’s 1,400 homeless people. At least two homeless residents have tested positive for COVID-19, both of whom stayed in county-funded isolation housing.

Countywide, there are 284 positive cases. Eight people have died and 93 have recovered, according to the latest numbers.

To determine when stay-at-home restrictions can be lifted, the county is looking at its number of cases and whether it can protect vulnerable populations — seniors, the homeless and jail inmates, Munday said.

“All of these people that we’re concerned about being high risk, we gotta be prepared to protect them and try to keep them as safe as we can as we move forward,” he said.

In addition to social distancing guidelines and the state’s stay-at-home order, residents remain under a local health order to wear face masks when going to public places such as grocery stores.

Last week, the county reopened golf courses, its regional parks and other outdoor recreational areas to limited access. Residents can jog, walk and ride bicycles but are not allowed to participate in organized activities such as parties and contact sports.

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Jennifer Bowman is an investigative reporter at inewsource, covering mostly education. She’s happy to be back in her hometown after stints at daily newspapers in Michigan and North Carolina. At the Asheville Citizen Times, Jennifer’s award-winning coverage of yearslong corruption helped...