Devastating. That’s how Reverend Dr. Melvin Miller describes the impact of COVID-19 on Progressive Baptist Church, located on the East Side of St. Paul.

Miller knew COVID-19 testing could help the people in his congregation, some of whom have already been diagnosed with the disease. But he also knew many of his church members, who come from diverse and historically disenfranchised communities, face significant barriers to healthcare access. Others have little trust in a national system that has not always served their best interests.

To begin bridging those gaps, Miller invited M Health Fairview to set up a testing site at place that would be easy for his congregation to reach: the Progressive Baptist Church parking lot. On Saturday morning, a team of physicians, nurses, and staff gathered at the church. Over several hours, they conducted roughly 130 drive-through diagnostic tests for church members. The cost of the COVID-19 testing was covered by the Fairview Foundation.

“This is about serving the people right here in this community,” said Ramsey County District 4 Commissioner Toni Carter, who was one of dozens to receive COVID-19 nasal testing on Saturday. “We know that this pandemic, like so many other pandemics because of health disparities, is affecting black and brown people disproportionately. We also know that black and brown people are being tested at disproportionately low rates.”

Miller agrees. When the pandemic began, Progressive Baptist Church halted all in-person worship services. The disease also disrupted church social outreach programs that are critically important for Progressive’s East Side community, including a food shelf and youth summer camps. Amid the difficult news, however, Miller and other church officials saw an opportunity to serve.

The church connected with Chris Warlick, MD, PhD, Chair of the University of Minnesota Department of Urology, Co-Lead of the Research Core of the Center for Healthy African-American Men Through Partnerships (CHAAMPS), and a long time health equity advocate who was recently appointed to help lead M Health Fairview’s HOPE Commission. If M Health Fairview could provide the testing resources, Progressive Baptist offered to serve as a trusted liaison to East Side communities.

“One of the things that we think a partnership like this brings is an element of trust,” Warlick said. “By partnering with a pillar of the community like Progressive Baptist Church, we hoped to reduce some of the concern and skepticism that we see among minority communities about seeking care for something as important as COVID-19.”

The testing effort was a team effort, said Warlick, who credits M Health Fairview, the Fairview FoundationM Health Fairview Clinic – Bethesda, the University of Minnesota Medical School, the medical school’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, and volunteers from other organizations.

Saturday’s testing is the second effort M Health Fairview teams have coordinated with local partners in St. Paul. Earlier this spring, M Health Fairview support enabled Open Cities Health Center, which serves low-income families, to conduct 1,000 COVID-19 tests in a 17-day-span.

“Through many years of deep partnerships and collaborations with community, M Health Fairview continues to play a leadership role in the east metro to address health equity issues and improve health outcomes,” said John Swanholm, M Health Fairview Vice President of Community Advancement and President of the Fairview Foundation. “Our emerging partnership with Progressive Baptist through community testing efforts is one of the latest steps in this journey, and we are currently planning more testing events with other community partners.

“Having a larger health system like M Health Fairview embedded in the community and aligned with trusted institutions like the church can make all the difference in the world,” Miller said. “This is a starting point. We are convinced that if we work together we can begin to close that gap.”