The Anacostia drugstore is one of four the Kims own in the District, and each has suffered damage during the past nights of unrest. It is not just structural harm left behind. The Anacostia store, targeted early Monday by the battering U-Haul, and the Kims’ pharmacies in Georgetown and on Capitol Hill also have been part of a federal program of free tests for the coronavirus.
They are among 70 such sites across the country that had to close because of destruction from civil unrest, according to figures compiled by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The department began the Community-Based Testing Sites program in March. Most of the testing locations were chosen because they are in what public health officials call “socially vulnerable” neighborhoods.
“Our urban areas are being disparately hit by the virus, and then they are getting disparately hit by the violence,” said Michael R. Caputo, HHS’s assistant secretary for public affairs. “And the result is a community that is truly in need for testing capacity losing that capacity.”
Health officials’ consternation about the vandalism taking testing sites out of commission coincides with condemnation by President Trump, who blurred the line between looting and peaceful protests across much of the country over the Memorial Day death in Minneapolis of George Floyd while in police custody.
On Tuesday, the president tweeted, “The lowlifes and losers are ripping you apart,” as he urged New York City officials to call up the National Guard.
The day before, he said from the White House Rose Garden, “I am your president of law and order and an ally of all peaceful protests.” Moments later, Attorney General William P. Barr ordered law enforcement officers to clear nearby streets of largely peaceful protesters by using smoke canisters, pepper balls, riot shields, batons and rubber bullets, so that Trump could walk to a historic church earlier set afire.
HHS officials place the damage to testing sites — all private stores participating in the government program — in a more healing context. “Testing capacity is a necessary component to the recovery of the nation,” Caputo said.
Deputy Surgeon General Erica G. Schwartz, in charge of a Community-Basted Testing Site task force, added, “I think even one being closed” is a problem.
Pharmacies and public health experts share that view.
The National Community Pharmacists Association issued a statement Wednesday, decrying reports of damage and looting of its members. “These are all family-owned businesses that have been serving people in their communities for years, and sometimes generations, and have been on front lines of health care during the covid-19 pandemic,” the trade group said.
Leana S. Wen, a visiting professor at George Washington University, was Baltimore’s health commissioner in 2015, the year the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray while in police custody triggered protests in the city that escalated into violence. A dozen pharmacies were looted or burned, she recalled, and some of Baltimore’s clinics and community health centers “for days couldn’t open for safety concerns. . . . We had to figure out transportation for patients, if they needed dialysis or chemotherapy [and] couldn’t wait a week.”
“When infrastructure is destroyed, some of the infrastructure is the health infrastructure,” Wen said. And Baltimore’s interruptions in health services, she said, were not during a pandemic.
According to HHS figures, at least nine health centers in five states have been damaged in the past nights of unrest, including in Sacramento, Denver and Philadelphia, as well as in Minnesota, where Floyd died. And at least six health centers in five states were closed because of their proximity to protests.
The 70 testing sites — out of 424 in the program — that closed because of unrest are in 17 states, plus the District. They include four Rite Aids in Philadelphia and four Walgreens in Chicago.
James Garrow, spokesman for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, called the Rite Aid closings regrettable but said the city has more than 50 coronavirus testing sites.
Wen said, however, the temporary or permanent closing of testing sites could leave people wary of coming to get tested at places that had been vandalized. And the sudden shuttering of testing site, she said, could make it harder for health authorities to identify a potential increase in coronavirus cases stemming from the demonstrations. “We shouldn’t feel comforted if we don’t see an uptick. There may be a reason why the numbers aren’t being captured,” she said.
Across the country, officials have been concerned that days and nights of protests, with demonstrators close together and encountering police and the National Guard, could be breeding grounds for the virus to spread.
Over the weekend, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) told her city’s protesters that they should get tested for the coronavirus as soon as possible.
The Minnesota Department of Health updated its testing guidance Tuesday, adding that groups at high priority for getting a test include “people who have participated in any large gatherings, including but not limited to protests, community clean up and recovery efforts, vigils, [and] neighborhood defense meetings.” The guidance said such people should get tested regardless of whether they have symptoms of the coronavirus.
In recent weeks, as testing shortages during the pandemic’s first months began to ease, some states were finding that the numbers of people coming to find out if they are infected was falling below recommendations of public health experts. Testing to identify new cases, combined with tracing the contacts of those infected, are widely regarded as critical to safely lifting stay-at-home orders.
On Wednesday, about half of the testing sites forced to close had reopened, according to figures from HHS, which runs the testing initiative with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “They are absolutely committed to getting back up,” said Schwartz, the deputy surgeon general.
Two of the three pharmacies owned by the Kims — the District’s only participants in the Community-Based Testing Site program — are not among those that have resumed testing. Taken together, the three had been giving about 90 tests a day. The pharmacies canceled appointments, but Tuesday “people were still coming up to be tested,” said Joan Kim, the co-owner and vice president.
Grubb’s Care Pharmacy on Capitol Hill, founded in 1867 and one of the oldest pharmacies in the nation, reopened for tests at 10 a.m. Wednesday, even after another break-in Tuesday night, About 15 people had come for tests by midday, said Michael Kim, the company’s president.
At the Grubb’s in Anacostia and at Morgan Care Pharmacy, Georgetown’s oldest, “we are not planning on resuming testing,” he said. “Too much damage, the staff, just the logistics of everything. It’s a lot.”