When it comes to reopening states’ economies, the one word that always comes up is testing. Knowing exactly who has COVID-19, and who doesn’t, is crucial.

A new partnership is bringing 5,000 COVID-19 tests to seven low-income health centers in Allegheny County. The Richard King Mellon Foundation is providing $350,000 to buy the first 2,000 test kits from Curative Inc., of Los Angeles, to be delivered to the Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs.)

The Allegheny County Health Department will buy 3,000 additional tests. Pittsburgh-based self-driving car company Argo AI will use their expertise in route planning and fleet operations to distribute and pick up the tests.

“Really, from the very outset, we were focused on this idea of how do we get testing into communities that need it the most?” says Sam Reiman, director of the Richard King Mellon Foundation.

“Through the Foundation’s network and my network, we were introduced to a diagnostics company called Curative based in Los Angeles. And we learned about the work they’d been doing to deploy this new saliva-based diagnostic kit for COVID-19.”

Unlike the usual nasal swab test, this test is easier to administer.

“There’s a simple swab of someone’s mouth,” says Reiman. “It requires very minimal protective gear for the person administering the tests.”

Results typically come in three days’ time. More than 60,000 Curative tests have been conducted in Los Angeles so far, notes Reiman, and other users include the U.S. Air Force.

“What’s really fascinating is that Pittsburgh will be one of the first cities to deploy this new technology,” says Reiman.

“We have really good data on false negative rates. So we’re able to see that this test performs better than many of the other tests out there on the market, in terms of providing accurate results. That was all part of the due diligence that the County, in particular, went through, to make sure they were going to bring tests into the county that are in fact producing good results.”

COVID-19 tests. Photo courtesy of Curative Inc.

Allegheny County’s seven FQHCs are: Primary Care Health Services, Squirrel Hill Health Center, Northside Christian Health Center, Pittsburgh Mercy, East Liberty Family Health Care Center, Sto-Rox Family Health Center and Metro Community Health Center.

“Expanded testing is critical to controlling the spread of COVID-19, and that means anyone who needs a test must be able to get one,” says Dr. Debra Bogen, director of the Allegheny County Health Department. “This partnership will bring testing into new communities in our region and to some of our most vulnerable residents.”

Cost should not be a factor in keeping people from getting tested.

“The tests are completely free,” says Reiman. “Federally Qualified Health Centers, by definition, are typically serving the most at-risk populations in the city. They work primarily with patients who have Medicaid, so they qualify for Medicaid because of their income, and have very minimal means to be able to pay deductibles and other reimbursements. For the most part, FQHCs deliver as close to free health care as one could get.”

The whole project is a tribute to the region’s ability to collaborate.

“One of the things that we do best in this region is work together, particularly when faced with challenges in our community,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. “Thanks to the Richard King Mellon Foundation, Curative, Argo AI, the team at the Health Department and the many FQHCs that call Allegheny County home, we are meeting the need to provide more testing in underserved communities. It is only through such cooperative efforts that we will continue to make strides against this virus.”

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.