We need universal access to COVID-19 testing and treatment

Volunteers wait for patients at a walk-up COVID-19 testing site set up by the health department in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

By Allison Powell

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was terminated from the job I had been working at for the last four years.

I was very fortunate to find another job within one week of being let go, as I know most people haven’t had this same experience. This new job was such an exciting opportunity for me to expand my knowledge as a social worker and begin working with the unhoused community in Harrisonburg. Taking this job meant that I would be placing myself directly into the line of fire and putting my health at risk by working with those who are extremely vulnerable and at high risk to contract the virus.

I thought about it, and I decided I would take the chance to support these community members at a time that is even more uncertain for them. Within a few short weeks of starting, I began to display symptoms of the virus. Panicked, I contacted my director and we consulted the health team that we work with and determined I should get tested.

However, I could not get a test. I displayed many signs: fever exceeding 100.3, cough, fatigue, muscle aches. Since I didn’t have a primary care physician to write a doctor’s order for the test, I was denied. See, I had health insurance until I took this job.

The organization is small, so they are not required to provide health insurance; which I was okay with and knew ahead of time when accepting this position. The issue at hand is that I had many symptoms but yet I was still denied a test since I didn’t have a primary care physician. Most people who do not have insurance use Harrisonburg Community Health Center for their services since they use a sliding scale fee. Because of this, it’s often hard to get an appointment. So to this day I have no idea if I had the virus, or even if I was spreading it to others.

All I know is that I wanted to be tested but I had no way of getting one.

My plea today is for universal access to COVID testing and treatment. It’s great that Harrisonburg has now begun to offer these tests around our area, and they need to continue this practice for the duration of the pandemic. We need to call on Congress to pass legislation that provides access to testing and treatment regardless of insurance status.

Recently, Virginia Organizing released a letter signed by over 140 current and former elected officials from all areas of Virginia calling for “Relief for All Virginians”. In this letter we outlined our priorities for the next COVID relief package. One priority is that there should be increased health care coverage. Testing, treatments and medicines for coronavirus should be provided at no cost to all patients regardless of insurance or immigration status. Thanks to all five members of Harrisonburg City Council that signed on in support.

U.S. Representative Cline, Tim Kaine, and Mark Warner should take these priorities back to Washington, and fight for protections and support of their constituents.”

Allison Powell is a social worker in Harrisonburg.