AzGT, SSVEC Sponsor More Free COVID-19 Blitz Testing in Cochise County

Registered Nurse Susan Lange knows all too well how rural areas are often left behind – and the situation is no different when it comes to testing people for COVID-19.

“This testing is desperately needed here,” said Lange, Director of Community Programs for Chiricahua Community Health Centers, Inc. (CCHCI)

“In areas like this where you have a large number of vulnerable people, farm workers, agricultural workers, they don’t have the same protection as other populations so it makes them more susceptible,” Lange said.

Susan Lange, RN, director of community programs for Chiricahua Community Health Centers, Inc. (CCHCI) performs a nasal swab to test for COVID-19 during the free drive-up testing in Willcox June 30. Pre-registration was limited to the first 100 people and registration was filled in one day.

“And often, people don’t have insurance and they tend to not to want to go into a clinic; so, all of those things kind of add up to trouble, because without testing we really would have no idea the extent of this epidemic. With testing at least we have numbers that can guide us as to what the possible next steps are, what we need to do as a clinic, what we need to do within the hospital systems to take care of the people,” Lange said. “It gets us information to meet the needs of the population,” Lange said.

CCHCI held 25 free testing events at communities around Cochise County, including Benson, Willcox, Sierra Vista, Bisbee, Douglas, and Elfrida, for more than five weeks, until it ran out of funding because of overwhelming demand.

It announced the week of June 16 it would have to stop the free testing because of a lack of funds. CCHCI donates staff and testing kits and organizes the events, but was still paying more than $10,000 for every 200 tests.

CCHCI staff prepare test kits as drivers roll up to the testing station.

When it was learned that CCHCI had to cancel the testing events, Arizona G&T Cooperatives and Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Cooperative teamed up to donate $15,000 for three testing events in Willcox,  Sierra Vista, and Benson. The Willcox event was held June 30, the Sierra Vista event is Friday, July 10, and the Benson event is Tuesday, July 14 (see the CCHCI schedule below). These three events will help CCHCI gather data for the month of July, bridging a gap until the first of August when more state and/or federal funding should be available to continue the testing.

When Jim and Ruth Graham learned of the free COVID-19 testing in Willcox, they immediately called and registered.

“Part of it is we have a business where we have opportunities to be in close contact with other people, and we’re trying to follow the guidelines the CDC and the governor have said to follow,” Graham said.

“The other part of it is the testing is also important to all of us because we have to have real numbers to really know what the full picture is, because there’s definitely a problem, and until we know the facts and get a handle on them, which the testing helps us do, we’re not going to be able to resolve the whole issue,” said Graham.

Graham and his wife Ruth are the owners of Golden Rule Vineyards and Cochise Groves Pistachios, on Dragoon Road west of the Apache Generating Station. Both said they are being extremely cautious in their daily lives — masking up, maintaining social distancing, and practicing hand-washing and hygiene.

CCHCI staff member Erika Vega places a registration form on the windshield of a car as the driver rolls up for the free COVID-19 testing, sponsored by AzGT and SSVEC.

Graham said he was impressed at how well-organized the testing event was and how fast it went.

“It wasn’t as invasive as other people said it was; the folks that ran it were very cordial and it didn’t take very long, probably less than a minute from the time we pulled up and the swabs were done and we drove off,” Graham said.

“We’re farmers and business people. We depend on the electricity from the G&T, and SSVEC, and when we flip the switch we want the power to be there and it is; and this is a perfect example of how the cooperatives not only provide the power but also a community service that’s so important, and we want to thank you for doing it,” Graham said.

J.D. Wallace, AzGT communications, social media and marketing administrator, interviews Susan Lange, RN, about the need for COVID-19 testing in rural areas. Both wore masks and observed social distancing during the interview.

Lange wanted to recognize the CCHCI team doing the testing, as well as the cooperatives.

“This is the ‘A-Team.’ I think we’ve done more than 25 events and this group right here has been at most of these events; and you can see, we kind of read one another’s mind, we know what the other one is going to do, we know what the system is, and as a result of that things run seamlessly,” Lange said.

“I want to say, we are really, really grateful for your sponsoring this event, and I know you’re sponsoring two others, and the people coming through have expressed their gratitude, so thank you,” said Lange.

(With thanks to the CCHCI Staff: Susan Lange, Celest Vasquez, Molly Fenn, Patrick McPherran, Danny Barrera, Martin Rubio, Enrique Noriega, Erika Vega)