Why Chattanooga's public housing residents will not be tested for COVID-19 this week

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / A member of the National Guard speaks with a health worker at a mobile coronavirus testing location, located at Chattanooga State Community College's Kimball Site on Saturday, April 18, 2020 in Kimball, Tenn. Health workers from the Marion County Health Department and the Tennessee Department of Health work with members of the Tennessee National Guard worked together to provide testing at the site.

Tennessee's plan to begin testing Chattanooga's low-income residents for COVID-19 this week fell apart less than two days before the tests were set to begin.

The Chattanooga Housing Authority planned to offer tests for residents at Emma Wheeler Homes and Mary Walker Towers on Monday, then continue offering tests on Tuesday at College Hill Courts, East Lake Courts and Greenwood Terrace.

But the announcement of the National Guard's involvement began to unravel the operation after members of the Tennessee Black Caucus and local pastors raised concerns to the governor's office.

Among their concerns, they said that uniformed members of the military in predominantly black communities would have a negative effect on accessing the crucial tests - people would avoid contact with law enforcement figures and lose the opportunity to be tested.

Black communities are often wary about the intentions of law enforcement after decades of policies that targeted black and brown residents. In places like Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, the National Guard was mobilized to stop protests related to the killing of black men by police. The optics of military units in Chattanooga's public housing communities is disturbing, advocates said.

If other Hamilton County residents are being tested by health care professionals, so too should residents of Chattanooga's public housing, said the Rev. Charlotte Williams, pastor of Eastdale Village Community United Methodist Church.

"There has never been a cordial relationship between law enforcement and the community," Williams said. "And now during this pandemic you say you want to help us but then use people in uniform? What message does that send?"

(READ MORE: Chattanooga's COVID-19 patient surge never happened, but that doesn't mean it won't)

Many local leaders, including state Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, learned about the National Guard's involvement the same time they learned the Chattanooga Housing Authority Police Department was among more than 60 sheriff's offices and police departments that entered into an agreement with the state to receive otherwise protected health information - such as names and addresses - of people who tested positive for the coronavirus.

Betsy McCright, housing authority executive director, said on Monday the housing authority was previously unaware of its police force entering the agreement and it is no longer part of the agreement.

On Sunday, notice went out on behalf of the housing authority that testing at Chattanooga's public housing facilities was canceled. McCright, from the housing authority, later said the testing will be rescheduled.

The Chattanooga Housing Authority had tested three of its four senior living facilities with the help of local hospitals when the National Guard approached to help with the last senior home - Mary Walker Towers - and begin work on its family living facilities, which house more people, McCright said. The guard had the capability to test up to 3,100 residents in two days and previously helped the Hamilton County Health Department with drive-thru testing on some weekends.

The focus on testing low-income residents comes weeks after the state began a campaign to test in senior living facilities and prisons. Last week, Lee said his administration was working with local leaders in metropolitan areas to create testing plans for low-income, high-density residential communities.

People living in Chattanooga's public housing are particularly vulnerable to the virus, McCright said, since many are elderly and have underlying health conditions.

The testing effort in Chattanooga's public housing would have begun nearly two months after Hamilton County's first confirmed case of COVID-19 and several days after confirmed local cases topped 200.

Hakeem, along with the Rev. Timothy Careathers of Westside Missionary Baptist Church, said there are local options, with established relationships in the community, to ensure people living in Chattanooga's low-income areas get tested. Cempa Community Care will begin offering free drive-thru and walk-up COVID-19 testing in Alton Park on Wednesday. Last month, Clinica Medicos became a testing site in an effort to reach people in the Spanish-speaking community.

"We have health officials, even black officials, with expertise so there is absolutely no reason to get the National Guard involved," Careathers said.

(READ MORE: How Chattanooga churches are weighing reopening during the coronavirus pandemic)

Across the country, African Americans have been disproportionately infected or killed by the virus, the result of decades of systemic, unequal access to medical care, as well as people of color being more likely to be considered "essential workers" and coming into contact with the virus.

Black Tennessee residents make up nearly 17% of the statewide population and are 30% of the state's COVID-19 deaths and 20% of the confirmed cases. The race of 30% of the confirmed cases in Tennessee is pending as of Monday.

McCright said it is possible local medical professionals will conduct testing at Mary Walker Towers next week. The housing authority will accept the help of any health care organization that wants to help, she said.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.