Arizona Co-ops Help Fund COVID-19 Tests as Infection Rates Rise

Chiricahua Community Health Centers’ Susan Lange performs a nasal swab to test for COVID-19 during a free drive-up testing in Willcox on June 30. (Photo By: Geoff Oldfather)
Chiricahua Community Health Centers’ Susan Lange performs a nasal swab to test for COVID-19 during a free drive-up testing in Willcox on June 30. (Photo By: Geoff Oldfather)

As Arizona deals with one of the nation’s largest spikes in COVID-19 cases, electric cooperatives are working with public and private agencies to sponsor free coronavirus tests for people in their service areas.

A $15,000 donation from Arizona G&T Cooperatives and Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Cooperative will enable Chiricahua Community Health Centers, Inc. to conduct an additional 300 tests at three drive-thru sites in Willcox, Sierra Vista and Benson through mid-July.

As one of southeastern Arizona’s largest public health providers and the only one to sponsor free coronavirus tests, CCHCI had conducted 4,200 tests in Cochise County but was forced to stop in early June when funding ran out. Since then, COVID-19 infections in the sprawling county hit 811 as of July 6, compared to 580 a week ago. In May, 67 people tested positive. 

As of July 6, Arizona had about 101,440 reported infections, up from about 74,530 cases the previous week.  

“This testing is desperately needed here,” Susan Lange, CCHCI’s director of community programs, told Arizona G&T Cooperative’s Geoff Oldfather at the first co-op-funded testing event June 30 in Willcox. “In areas like this where you have a large number of vulnerable people—farm workers, agricultural workers—they don’t have the same protection as other populations, so it makes them more susceptible.”

Lange said another complication is that those without health insurance tend to avoid clinics for COVID-19 tests, where they would pay about $50 for the test and processing.

“Without testing, we really would have no idea the extent of this epidemic,” said Lange. “Testing guides us to possible next steps, what we need to do as a clinic and what we need to do within the hospital systems.”

Oldfather said he was “flabbergasted” when he learned the centers, the only public health clinic in their Cochise County service area, had run out of money to conduct tests. When he called Sulphur Springs Valley EC for help to sponsor more tests, the co-op immediately signed on.

“We have to have these tests. But it’s the same challenge we face with every issue: As a rural area, we just don’t have the same level of services as urban and metro areas,” said Oldfather. He said Arizona G&T and Sulphur Springs Valley EC went into “hyperdrive” to underwrite more tests.

The public testing “blitzes” started June 30 in Willcox. The next two will take place July 10 and 14 to measure any post-July 4 holiday spikes.

The co-ops’ donations have attracted funding from other agencies, including money from a hospital for 500 tests in Douglas, which has become a hot spot, said CCHCI’s Emily Vickers.

“I don’t think people understand that these tests aren’t free,” she said. “People think the government will pay for it, and that’s not the case. The co-op donations have absolutely started a wave. It’s been amazing. All of a sudden, people are saying, ‘Hey, here’s $10,000’ for COVID-19 tests.”

Arizona G&T Cooperatives’ Geoff Oldfather contributed to this story.

Victoria A. Rocha is a staff writer at NRECA.

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