A Doctor’s DIY COVID-19 Offensive

This article was first published in June 2020. In 2021, Dr. Ala Stanford and her organization, Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, have taken on the vaccine fight. Stanford has received the vaccine on camera in a bid to encourage hesitant Black Philadelphians to get the shot and helped distribute vaccines in underserved communities.

There’s a great scene in François RabelaisGargantua and Pantagruel in which a monk tries to convince his brethren that their vineyards are about to be destroyed by invaders. The other monks, resigned to their fate, pray. The exasperated monk uses a cross broken off the church to kill 7,000 of the invaders. By himself.

Dr. Ala Stanford is like that monk.

“I reached out to [the] city and the state,” says Stanford, who’s standing in a Philadelphia parking lot where she’s taking a break from testing people for COVID-19, “from my state senator to the city and then the governor’s office. Nothing.”

In a full-on Rabelaisian burst of activity, Stanford, 49, contacted all her Black doctor associates across the United States. The call to action was twofold: Did they have testing kits they could spare, and would they appear with her on Instagram Live to debunk misinformation about the virus?

I can’t let myself go down Conspiracy Road, but this [COVID-19] was spread by affluent travelers to local populations who couldn’t escape it.

Ala Stanford

With those tests, Stanford started going door to door. Then she set up in her church’s parking lot to test anyone who showed up. The first day? A dozen tests. The second day? 150. The third? 363.

LabCorp, the company to which the completed tests would be sent, wanted to know who was going to pay for it — then at $50 a pop, now at $100 given the demand — considering how many of the recipients had no health insurance. “‘Bill me.’ That’s what I told them,” says Stanford, the almost palpable joy of knuckled-up engagement in her voice. “I’ll worry about how to pay for it later.”

With her Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium and It Takes Philly, the nonprofit Stanford started in 2012 to encourage kids to think about careers in science, she was off. The donations rolled in, which brought the media spotlight to bear on Stanford.

Virus Outbreak Religious Activism

Dr. Ala Stanford with volunteers before the opening of a barrier-free COVID-19 testing location in Philadelphia.

Source Matt Rourke/AP

That media attention was not overlooked by the Keystone Cops klatsch of government groups that hadn’t been able to do anything before. “They started throwing jabs,” Stanford says, laughing. The Penn State grad’s LinkedIn page leaped to 400 views. People were checking to see whether the pediatric surgeon was licensed, board-certified and had malpractice insurance (yes, yes and yes). One group offered to “help.”

“An unnamed Philadelphia academic institution offered to send their testing vans over,” Stanford says. “They said they would test people with health insurance and we could test people without.” Stanford declined the offer and dug deep. Soon she’ll be taking the testing program to New York City’s Tremont Park.

“Look, I can’t let myself go down Conspiracy Road,” Stanford says, “but this was spread by affluent travelers to local populations who couldn’t escape it, even after the sheltering orders.” At that moment, someone calls for her from the other side of the parking lot where they’re also registering people to vote.

But before she leaves, inquiring minds want to know: Given the 24 percent positivity rates that Stanford has seen so far, how is she feeling these days?

“Amazingly, I have not gotten it yet,” she says.

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