US churches now offering COVID-19 tests along with spiritual relief

By Ruth E. Hernández Beltrán.

New York City, US, May 13 (efe-epa).- Churches have become much more than a spiritual refuge in the coronavirus pandemic. They offer food, provide sanctuary for immigrants, and now they are also centers for COVID-19 testing for Latino and African-American communities in the United States, the most affected by the virus.

In the heart of the south Bronx, one of the poorest areas of the country, a few steps from a metro station and surrounded by new buildings, is the Christian Church John 3:16 where the majority of parishioners are Latino. Since 1935 they have witnessed the changes that this community has faced, and for decades the church has brought spiritual relief.

On Wednesday, residents of the area were there for another reason. The church joined other religious centers to offer tests for the novel coronavirus and its antibodies after statistics showed that Latinos and black people are the most affected in New York, epicenter of the pandemic.

And while Queens and Brooklyn boroughs account for the highest number of cases, the Latino-majority Bronx has been hit hard when looking at the per-capita numbers.

“Come get tested, it’s free,” said a young reverend armed with a mask and gloves as he distributed a pamphlet to each passer-by.

For a week, Northwell Health will conduct tests at this church as part of an initiative to increase the number of testing venues, as announced a few days ago by the New York state governor Andrew Cuomo.

“What’s going on?” “Do you speak Spanish?” some passers-by asked when they stopped to observe a group of people in front of the church, which occupies an entire block.

Rafael was among those who stopped after learning that the test was being offered. He immediately joined the queue that was beginning to form. He wanted to know if he had the virus “as a precaution.”

“I was going through here and I decided to get tested. A month and a half ago I spent twelve days when I had no taste or smell,” said Rafael, who lives in a shelter for the homeless, referring to common symptoms of the virus.

Rafael has three family members living in the area and wants them to also take the test. “I already called them to come,” the man told EFE while standing in line.

“Our desire is to help the community during this pandemic. We are offering two tests – the COVID-19 test for those who have symptoms or are possibly passing the virus, and the antibody test for those who have possibly had the virus,” Rev. Roberto López, in charge of John 3:16, said.

The initiative, he said, was accomplished after “knocking on doors” with the support of borough president Rubén Díaz Jr., along with his father, councilman and reverend Rubén Díaz, president of the New York Hispanic Clergy Organization.

“Unfortunately, many of those who have suffered are Hispanic. More than 50 percent of our community that has gone through the virus are Hispanic and African-American, but Hispanics are the ones who are suffering the most,” López said, adding that the church is joining the community to support them with resources made available by the government.

Churches have been on the front line to help their parishioners by offering food to the sick and to those who have lost their jobs. Although John 3:16 has not yet lost any of his parishioners to the virus, it is not the reality for other religious centers in the city, the area most affected by the virus in the state.

Two churches, one in Elmhurst, Queens, and the other in central Manhattan, have jointly reported at least 100 deaths among their members, to whom they cannot even say their last goodbyes because security measures prevent it. Given the high number of deaths, their priests read the names of the recently deceased during online masses.

Santos Pasmiño, a 63-year-old Ecuadorian was another at John 3:16 who wanted to be tested.

“I want to have an antibody test,” he said, recalling that during the time he was in quarantine, he “felt tired, fatigue and occasionally had a headache and a sore throat.”

The Ecuadorian usually washes dishes in a restaurant but has not been working due to the epidemic.

“When I walk I still feel fatigue,” said Pasmiño, as he went to request an appointment for the antibody test, after which he continued his slow walk.

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