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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / A member of the Tennessee National Guard Medical Staff stands outside the East Lake Courts Community Center, where free COVID-19 testing was being offered to residents of East Lake Courts on Thursday, May 21, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Nearly two weeks after controversy halted plans to bring the National Guard to Chattanooga for COVID-19 testing, the guard was in public housing communities Thursday testing residents for the coronavirus.

Kerry Walker stood outside the East Lake Courts community center, his eyes watering after having the swab inserted high into his nose. Walker has an 8-month-old son and wanted to get tested to ensure his family was safe. The virus added a lot of stress to his life, he said.

Walker said he does not feel sick but he uses an inhaler and knows the surrounding area surged recently in cases.

"I didn't feel like I needed to get tested, but this is a hot spot," he said.

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COVID-19 testing in Chattanooga public housing

On Wednesday, the Hamilton County Health Department released a map of the county with the number of COVID-19 cases in each ZIP code. The map revealed that 1 in 4 local cases were clustered in the 37407 postal zone, one of Chattanooga's most vulnerable neighborhoods and where the testing was held Thursday.

The health department and local clinics have increased efforts to bring testing to some of Chattanooga's most vulnerable communities. Cempa Community Care offered testing at the Bethlehem Center and the Avondale Youth and Family Development Center. On Friday, La Paz Chattanooga is scheduled for COVID-19 testing at its location on Bailey Avenue.

On Thursday, around 30 members of the guard set up the free testing sites at East Lake Courts and Emma Wheeler Homes. Residents could also pick up free masks and hand sanitizer. Olivet Baptist Church delivered pizzas to the testing locations.

(READ MORE: For first time, Hamilton County releases COVID-19 cases by ZIP code showing areas hit hardest by virus)

City Councilman Erskine Oglesby, who represents the area, said it was important that the testing be on site so people who lack transportation could still have access.

"Any time we have the opportunity to bring services into the community, it increases participation," Oglesby said.

There was previous outcry about having the National Guard conduct testing in Chattanooga's public housing facilities. Members of the Tennessee Black Caucus and local pastors were concerned about the optics. Having uniformed members of the military in public housing communities could make people hesitant to get tested.

Planned testing nearly two weeks ago was scuttled because of those concerns. Since then community groups, including the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Nursing School, stepped in to conduct testing in some public housing communities.

This past Monday, the Chattanooga Housing Authority announced the National Guard would be coming to Chattanooga after all.

State Rep. Yusuf Hakeem said ultimately the need to get people tested as soon as possible outweighed other concerns.

The guard has been mobilized to help with testing throughout the state, including in public housing communities in Memphis and Nashville. People should expect to get their results back within three to four days, said Master Sgt. John Waderker, public information officer for the National Guard.

Daphny Sims thanked the members of the guard for keeping her calm during the testing process. The 42-year-old has a weakened immune system and allergies. She has been nervous about whether her recent sinus issues are related to the virus or the seasonal pollen, she said. So Sims decided to get swabbed.

"It really does feel like they touched the top of your brain," Sims said.

The testing in Chattanooga took place in nearby gymnasiums and community centers, rather than happening in parking lots or courtyards like in Nashville and Memphis, according to local media reports.

Dr. William Schaffner, infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt Medical Center, said holding testing indoors does not necessarily increase the risk of spreading the virus if precautions are taken.

"The trick is to do it with appropriate separation, making sure people wear masks, good hygiene and appropriate protective gear for workers," Schaffner said.

Members of the guard wore full personal protective equipment on Thursday, including masks, eye coverings and gloves. However, it is unclear whether people being tested and people doing the testing kept socially distant in East Lake on Thursday. The Times Free Press was not allowed access to the room where testing was occurring.

The National Guard is scheduled to continue testing at College Hill Courts and Greenwood Terrace Apartments on Friday.

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

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