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New COVID-19 Testing Program for Afghan Evacuees Launches in New Haven

January 18, 2022

A new COVID-19 community testing program created by the Yale School of Public Health (YSPH) SalivaDirect project and the New Haven-based nonprofit Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS) is providing no-cost testing to Afghan evacuees and other IRIS clients arriving in the city. The “New Home, New Haven” COVID-19 Testing Program was made possible with support from the Rockefeller Foundation.

The weekly testing program offers a bridge for new arrivals to New Haven to stay COVID-19 safe while they navigate the resettlement process and access longer-term medical care options.

The program will use the SalivaDirect testing method, a saliva-based laboratory diagnostic test developed by researchers at YSPH.

“Frequent, high-quality testing is essential to protect our communities from the evolving COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr. Anne Wyllie, principal investigator for SalivaDirect and a research scientist at Yale School of Public Health. “We designed the SalivaDirect COVID-19 saliva PCR test to be readily scalable and easy for labs to deploy; painless and simple for patients; capable of returning same-day results; and affordable with lab costs at about $1 to $4 per sample. Because of this, SalivaDirect enables rapid setup of affordable testing programs like this IRIS partnership for New Haven’s arriving Afghan evacuees.

“Together, we’re using saliva-based testing solutions to save resources, time, and most importantly, lives.”

Every Wednesday since Jan. 12, Afghan families have been visiting the IRIS community center in New Haven to pick-up donated goods, share a meal, and learn about service updates. Now, at the same time, they can also visit the “New Home, New Haven” booth to receive a free COVID-19 saliva PCR test. Encouraged to test weekly, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, participating individuals each receive COVID-19 testing services for five consecutive weeks. The nearby Yale Pathology Labs at the Yale School of Medicine will process 2,000 saliva tests as part of this health effort. Within 24 hours, participants will receive their confidential results through an online, HIPAA-compliant patient information system.

“Since the start of this pandemic, SalivaDirect has worked to ensure equitable access to testing across communities and in our schools,” said Leah Perkinson, manager of Pandemics, Health Initiative at The Rockefeller Foundation. “The SalivaDirect-IRIS partnership, forged by Yale’s Sumaira Akbarzada, MPH, demonstrates this steadfast commitment, and represents the type of community-based, rather than community-placed, initiatives that The Rockefeller Foundation is proud to support.”

For the new testing program, SalivaDirect worked closely with IRIS to create culturally competent COVID-19 education materials that have been translated into Persian and Pashto, languages most commonly spoken in Afghanistan. Elena’s Light, a service organization for refugees founded and operated by Afghan women, provides in-person translation services on each testing day to maximize access to information about COVID-19 and the testing process.

For decades, IRIS has been helping individuals fleeing persecution in their homelands. The organization mobilized quickly last summer in response to the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan’s government that led to a surge of people fleeing the country, with many arriving in the U.S. IRIS expects to support as many as 700 evacuees from Afghanistan as a result of the exodus.

“These journeys are always urgent and traumatic. Yet, the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and the immediacy of the mass evacuation is unprecedented,” said Ann O’Brien, IRIS’s director of community engagement. “It’s happened so quickly that the U.S. legislation needed to resettle these refugees is still being written. We’re honored to support so many Afghan families and very thankful because only with partners like SalivaDirect and Yale are we able to mobilize so quickly and safely, welcoming these evacuees to democracy, education and equal opportunities for women in America.”

Akbarzada, herself a refugee who left Afghanistan in the early 1990s, points to the dramatic experience of helping her family transition to a new life in the U.S. as the reason she chose a career in public health. “I learned this first-hand. People more readily engage in life-saving health care services when they’re culturally recognizable,” said Akbarzada. “Given all the misinformation circulating globally about COVID-19, I knew that to get maximum and frequent participation, our testing program would need to include services from people who sound and look like the evacuees themselves.”

The “New Home, New Haven” COVID-19 testing program goes beyond translation to effectively deliver its services. Testing participants are paired with an IRIS caseworker and a point of contact in the community. Starting with an explanation about how to sign the consent forms, these caseworkers help Afghan evacuees understand each step of the testing journey, from program registration to the weekly collection of their saliva sample, confirmation of test results. Participants also have the opportunity to speak with a physician in their own language if they so desire.

“Constantly in transition from airports to military bases to temporary housing with visits to numerous government agencies, our evacuees from Afghanistan continue to face many exposures to new places and people,” said Dr. Y Z Azar, managing partner of Genesis Medical Group and humanitarian advocate for Afghan refugees. “Those who can be are vaccinated on arrival, yet we know weekly COVID-19 testing is the best way to protect the most vulnerable among us. Along with other Afghan-American physicians across the country, I applaud and thank SalivaDirect and Yale for this noble effort to help keep arriving refugees healthy and out of the hospital. We owe it to them and our gracious host communities to make every effort to keep them COVID-19-free.”

Azar and fellow doctors from the Genesis Medical Group join an informal network of Afghan-American physicians that reaches across the country. They provide pro bono medical care to people fleeing Afghanistan upon their arrival in the United States, before they have permanent homes and the resources to access reliable healthcare. In addition to the “New Home, New Haven” COVID-19 testing program in Connecticut, Azar and colleagues support similar efforts in other states welcoming evacuees from Afghanistan, including Arizona, California, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

To get involved and help IRIS help more Afghan families, please follow these links:

Donate to defray costs of essential supplies and emergent needs at irisct.org/donate.

Join an existing community group in a Connecticut town or work with IRIS to welcome families in your community at irisct.org/communitycosponsorship/ .




Submitted by Colin Poitras on January 18, 2022