Mobile labs target "testing deserts" where COVID-19 can spread undetected

Mobile labs target COVID-19 "testing deserts"
Mobile labs target COVID-19 "testing deserts"... 01:51

Lisa Wright wanted a COVID-19 test. But without one of the mobile testing labs that have been dispatched to parts of rural America that don't have testing sites, the 70 year-old retired nurse would have had to drive an hour to get one.

Roughly 13,000 people live in Sumter County, the poorest pocket of Alabama. The county is used to doing without — but County Commissioner Marcus Campbell drew the line at COVID-19 testing.  

"We were a testing desert," Campbell said. "People would always ask when they heard about testing going on in other areas, 'Why not in Sumter County?'" 

According to research by Johns Hopkins University, communities of color often have less access to COVID-19 testing. In Alabama, majority Black counties tend to have fewer tests available than majority White counties. There are similar trends in Oregon, Delaware, New Mexico and South Dakota in predominantly Hispanic and Indigenous American counties. 

Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, who works with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, explained how testing deserts increase the chance the virus will spread. 

"If you're infected, you could be walking around not knowing and spreading the virus to others," Nuzzo told CBS News, adding, "That not only increases the number of people who ultimately get the virus, but also increases the likelihood that some of those people will become ill enough to be in a hospital and ill enough to die."

What is a coronavirus testing desert? 01:41

Campbell said he lost two cousins to the virus, whom he buried on the same day. He said the experience "absolutely" motivated him to get tests to his county. 

Campbell coordinated with Whatley Health Services to set up drive-through testing in west Alabama. These mobile labs test two or three times a week in west Alabama — a testing desert no more.    

"It's rewarding to know that they can get it done," Campbell said. 

Since March, more than 4,000 people have been tested, and 10% have tested positive.  


The Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center has launched a new tool on its U.S. state tracking pages that provides for the first time county-level insight into the effects of COVID-19 through case and testing data measured against key demographic information, including race and poverty level. 

To view how these trends are affecting populations in your own county, click here

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    Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001 and is based in the Atlanta bureau.