A Philadelphia parish is countering COVID by hosting a test site that offers free screenings, even for those without insurance.

St. Raymond of Penafort, located in the city’s Mount Airy section, has partnered with Jefferson Health and the City of Philadelphia to provide the service, available on Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Jefferson personnel are staffing the city-funded project, which the parish will make available for the next six months.

Those experiencing symptoms are given priority at the site, along with those who are asymptomatic but believe they may have been exposed to the coronavirus. Appointments, which are encouraged, can be made by calling 833-533-3463; walk-up clients are also welcome.

After a brief intake session, patients self-administer a nasal swab under supervision. Results can be accessed through Jefferson’s patient web portal, and the health system’s staff will follow up with every client to discuss safety measures. Those who test positive will be instructed on self-isolation and care.

For St. Raymond pastor Father Christopher Walsh, the site – located in an underused parking lot on the parish campus – is exactly “where the church needs to be.”

“If we read the Gospels, so much of Christ’s ministry was to the sick,” he said. “Certainly Christ understood that we’re caring for the full person, body and soul, and he also understood that sometimes when the body gets healed, that then sets the person up for a spiritual healing.”

Andrea Kerr, a lifelong parishioner at St. Raymond of Penafort in Philadelphia, said a parish-based COVID testing site makes “complete and total sense.” (Photo courtesy of Andrea Kerr)

Father Walsh said that testing, especially of those who are asymptomatic, is essential to curbing the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected more than 35.5 million and killed over one million globally.

“I’ve gotten tested three times so far myself, just as a precaution, as I knew I was being exposed to people who have had the virus,” he said. “I think it’s a sort of assurance to my community as I’m interacting with them, that they know I’m healthy and well.”

The virus has disproportionately impacted people of color, including African Americans, who comprise the majority of St. Raymond parishioners.

In fact, the suggestion to host the site at St. Raymond came from a parishioner who works at Jefferson.

Father Walsh first contacted the Archdiocese to ensure the project would comply with safety and insurance requirements. Having received approval, he designated an underused parking lot on the parish campus for the site, which operates at a safe distance from the parish school.

Dozens of clients have already availed themselves of the service, enabling both the city and Jefferson to extend their testing networks through “a well-established community partner,” said Dr. Matt Fields of the Jefferson Health Design Lab, who along with several colleagues oversees the St. Raymond site.

“When you’re deploying something like a COVID test site, that foundation is amazing,” said Dr. Fields. “We can’t show up just anywhere unless the community trusts that institution. People here trust Father Walsh and trust the parish, and so that really is key for us to be successful.”

Fellow emergency physician Dr. Morgan Hutchinson, co-director of education at the health design lab, agreed.

“Father Walsh has been extremely supportive of this, as have those who work in the church and the whole community,” she said, adding that “members of the church have come by to ask if they could help.”

The parish’s backing “makes the community feel more comfortable,” said Dr. Hutchinson.

“We all have the same goal here, just to bring testing to this neighborhood,” she said.

Lifelong St. Raymond parishioner Andrea Kerr, who visited the site on its opening day, said the initiative “makes complete and total sense.”

“It’s right in heart of a heavily populated Black area,” said Kerr, an operations manager in a frontline food delivery service.

Having worked at Amazon as well, Kerr noted that the need for testing is set to increase with the onset of colder temperatures and the busy holiday shopping season.

“You’ve really got to look at your body and tune in, especially now,” she said. “If it’s offered, you should definitely get tested; that way you know.”

For Father Walsh, the site is also a way of “engaging folks who don’t have a church affiliation.”

“I think sometimes they wonder, ‘What’s the relevance of the church?’” he said. “And so if they’re encountering the church in some way, because the parish is sharing its property and resources to make this possible, they can see we really do care about people, including those who are not members of the church.”