DES MOINES, Iowa — In late May, Gov. Kim Reynolds made a declaration: that anyone in Iowa wishing to get tested for coronavirus, regardless of symptoms, can do so.
The expansive testing is offered through the “Test Iowa” initiative, a $26 million program that that operates now 16 drive-thru testing sites and clinics across the state.
“We’re opening up to everyone who wants to be tested,” Reynolds during a May 21 news conference. Testing through Test Iowa prior to her announcement was restricted to essential workers like those in health care and manufacturing. Other testing elsewhere, including the at State Hygienic Lab, still requires more stringent criteria.
But despite the sweeping move to make more testing available, advocates say the system is still shutting Iowans out, especially those with disabilities and those facing language barriers.
Don Dew wrote the governor a letter one day before she made the announcement raising concerns about access.
“I fear not enough attention has been paid to the issue of accessibility,” he wrote in the letter dated May 20. "The bottom line is that this pandemic has not only shown a lack of planning, but it has also intensified ableism.”
Dew, executive director of the Disabilities Resource Center of Siouxland, and other disability rights advocates say two key parts of the Test Iowa program — an online assessment to get a test appointment and several sites requiring drive-thru access — are leaving Iowans shut out.
“They’re frustrated with the governor for talking about this everyday at her press conference and they don’t understand why she is not helping people with disabilities so they feel left out,” Dew, whose nonprofit provides supports to Iowans with disabilities living independently, said in an interview. “They feel left behind again.”
23% of adults in Iowa have some sort of disability, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Dew says 365,000 Iowans with disabilities are living independently.
“That’s a big number of people that could have underlying conditions that could be really badly impacted,” Dew said.
In Dew’s letter he expressed concerns about no “walk-up” availability for Iowans who can’t drive and lack of on-site interpreters. He also asked how Iowans with diminished vision can access the Test Iowa website.
KGAN-TV asked Gov. Kim Reynolds about this during a May 22 news conference. She said Test Iowa isn’t the only avenue for testing.
“You have to remember this is one tool in the tool box. There’s many other options for them to get a test: they can call their doctor, they can call their clinic, they can go to a FQHC—that’s the provider up in Sioux City,” Reynolds said. “There’s a lot of options and there is going to continue to be options.”
That answer did not satisfy Jane Hudson, an attorney and executive director of Disability Rights Iowa, who makes the case that the Test Iowa program violates the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
“The Americans with Disabilities Act says any alternatives have to be equally effective and I don’t think trying to scrape out a clinic or an emergency room is as equally as effective as going online, filling out a form, getting approved and going to a testing site,” Hudson said.
“To me, it’s outright discrimination without a justifiable reason.”
KGAN-TV reached out to the governor’s office on Monday seeking any updates regarding access to Iowans with disabilities and officials did not immediately respond for comment.
Concerns about access to testing are not limited to Iowa. Nebraska has a similar multi-million dollar contract with Utah-based companies to offer “Test Nebraska” to residents.
During a June 1 conference call, leaders and advocates said they share in Iowans’ frustrations.
“When I see that we intentionally or non-intentionally passed over our disabled or chronically ill residents in Nebraska and Iowa for potential testing, I feel that we are making a statement that we do not believe they have as much value as our residents without disabilities,” said Nebraska State Senator Carol Blood, a Democrat from Lincoln.
Blood, who hosted the call, invited Iowa state lawmakers to join and voice their concerns.
Rep. Chris Hall, D-Sioux City, has called for an Iowa House Oversight Committee investigation into alleged problems with Test Iowa, which also include reports of damaged tests and Iowans waiting weeks for results.
"Right now we're hearing stories of people who filled a survey on the website, they were told they were not likely to have COVID but they're still encouraged to come in for a test and drive an hour away," Hall said. "That makes some of us skeptical of the types of data they're seeking to find. Are we seeking for these tests to drive up the number of negative cases in order to have the data conform more to a narrative that our governor prefers?"
He added: "We would just like for citizens, if they truly all can be promised to access a test, that can do so locally regardless if they have a disability or not."
Advocates and community leaders also argue Test Iowa creates hurdles for people who don’t speak English and don’t have access to technology and the internet.
Dalia Kyi is a program manager for EMBARC, a nonprofit group that works with refugee communities. They have a COVID-19 crisis hotline by which they’ve fielded thousands of questions and helped individuals navigate Test Iowa. They offer language assistance in nine languages, Kyi said.
She estimates EMBARC has taken 8,000 calls and helped 40-50 fill out Test Iowa assessments and guided them to testing sites.
“They don’t drive—that creates transportation issues. They don’t have access to the computer and they don’t speak the language," Kyi said. "That’s three main things that create a barrier for them to access Test Iowa.”
When you take the Test Iowa assessment in order to secure a testing appointment, the state offers an option to take it in Spanish.
Reynolds has been asked about internet access to fill out the form, as diminished or lack of broadband connectivity is still an issue facing rural parts of the state.
“If you don’t have internet access, find a trusted friend who can help you navigate through the process," she said.
As of June 2018, which reflects the most recent available data, approximately 35% of all US Census Blocks in Iowa have no provider that facilitated broadband service, or about 93,685 households, according to the Iowa Office of the Chief Information Officer.
In an email, a spokeswoman for the state agency said they believe the number of underserved locations in Iowa is actually likely to be higher than 35%, since federal data used for the estimates is "known to overstate service availability in many areas."
Hudson also noted that many people with disabilities are living on Social Security and don't have computers of their own, often using libraries as a resource.
"I think the Governor has said 'well get a friend or family member to fill it out for you.' No, it has to be accessible under the ADA," she said.