Paula Richardson was concerned. The ICU nurse at Emory Medical Center saw first-hand the disparities in access to COVID-19 testing, and worried that new variants would further impact Black and low-income residents. So, in February 2021, she took matters into her own hands.
First, she started working out of the only space she had available: her car, a 2014 Toyota Camry. “At the time, I already had a license to operate a medical facility because I was teaching CPR-certification classes for years. So, when COVID-19 hit, I just adjusted my focus to testing and started a mobile testing unit right out of my car,” she said.
Seven months later, Richardson launched Top Notch Health Solutions, an in-person COVID-19 testing and vaccination site in South DeKalb, where she provides medical care and education to Black residents in need.
40,000 tests and counting
Richardson said she identified areas of need through word-of-mouth. She used personal savings to move testing from her car into a dedicated mobile van, and put it in Providence Office Park at the corner of Wesley Chapel and Candler roads, a predominantly Black metro area just 12 miles east of downtown.
Next, she received a federal grant to hire staff and open an on-site facility. “At that time, so many people were telling me to set up a physical location in Decatur because there were no options for rapid testing there,” Richardson said. “I have had patients tell me that they were being told that a PCR test in Buckhead would cost them $400. For someone living off Candler Road right now, $400 is simply not an option.”
Richardson said at the peak of the omicron surge, she and her team were testing upwards of 300 patients a day. Sometimes, they had to turn people away to preserve tests for the week. In all, she estimates she’s treated more than 40,000 patients. Richardson still doesn’t charge uninsured patients for rapid testing, and offers PCR tests for $150.
“It was actually crazy trying to service 300 people in a day,” Richardson said. “It was like we had the first half of our patients come in before 2 p.m., then we would have a slight break, and at 4 p.m. the kids from school would come until late in the evening.”
Richardson’s mission resonated with nurses, such as Katrina Henderson, the operations manager at TN, who was looking to give back to her community. Henderson grew up in the area, but now lives an hour away in Monroe.
“I could have definitely worked in other areas where I might make more money and work less, ” Henderson said. “If it wasn’t in my heart, I wouldn’t be here and we all wouldn’t be here. I make that drive because I care.”
Henderson said at the surge’s peak, she and her team worked to accommodate a mass of patients seeking rapid results in time for the holidays.
“We used to be open five days a week but, once omicron happened, we opened up seven days a week and added extra hours just to get people in,” Henderson said. The lack of MARTA stops in the area made travel harder on patients. “We had people using rideshares to get here because they had no other options, while senior citizens were carpooling.”
To offer health education to patients, both Richardson and Henderson had to overcome contradictory guidance from the CDC, medical myths about the virus, and mistrust of the vaccines.
“The lack of trust wasn’t created out of ignorance but, rather, genuine deep-rooted fear over generations of history when it comes to being Black in America’s medical system,” Richardson said.
In the near future, Richardson said she hopes to obtain a federal license to expand her COVID-19 testing and vaccination site to a primary care facility, which would allow her to accept new, uninsured patients for as little as $80 dollars.
Other plans include partnering with private business owners in Rockdale and Newton counties to obtain permits for another mobile lab, so residents in those areas don’t have to drive long distances to find tests. Henderson hopes that state entities, such as the Georgia Department of Health, recognize that she and other Black healthcare professionals are able to have real impact with their work because residents do want access to better healthcare.
“We’re reporting all the numbers of tests and vaccinations to the DPH,” Henderson said. “This will show that we are here and that we are doing our part to beat this pandemic, too.”
As for Richardson, she says she and her team plan to be in the area for the long haul. She wants to transition into working full-time at TN, using her nurse practitioner certifications to offer telehealth visits, in-person appointments, and prescription medications when the team later expands to primary care.
“I chose this area for a reason,” Richardson said. “I want to continue to build on the relationships I have already created with the community and continue to provide care to my neighborhood.”
Need help finding an at-home COVID-19 test? Read our explainer for where to go, when you should get tested, and the latest government responses.