West Virginia church dispatches mobile health unit for COVID-19 testing; congregations step up outreach

By David Paulsen
Posted May 19, 2020

[Episcopal News Service] In 2017, St. James’ Episcopal Church in Lewisburg, West Virginia, led a coalition of community partners in forming a plan to create a mobile health unit – a 16-foot box trailer outfitted with a small exam room – that health agencies could take around the county, especially to support their work with people suffering from opioid addiction.

With $10,000 in state grants and another $10,000 from the Diocese of West Virginia, the unit was finished in 2019 and dedicated in a ceremony held last November. It was first deployed as a pop-up substance abuse clinic on March 2, 2020.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. Now the mobile health unit is being used by a local medical clinic to offer free COVID-19 tests. The partnership highlights the range of ways Episcopal churches in West Virginia are supporting their communities as they respond to the ongoing public health crisis. That work fits naturally with the church’s call to serve, said the Rev. Joshua Saxe, rector of St. James’.

“When we talk about health and the church, we talk about spiritual health and well-being,” Saxe told Episcopal News Service. “But I think it’s a multifaceted approach, and health is mind, body and spirit. We are in a unique position to aid in the health of our community.”

The need has only increased during the pandemic. On March 17, West Virginia became the last state to confirm its first coronavirus case, but since then, at least 1,500 people in the state have contracted the virus, including 68 who have died.

As COVID-19 cases spread in March and April, dioceses across The Episcopal Church suspended in-person worship to help slow the rate of infection. With churches closed in the Diocese of West Virginia, congregations opened their hearts in other ways, as detailed recently in a diocesan publication.

At St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Huntington, parishioners are stocking a “Blessing Box” with food and household items for people in need. Numerous churches in the diocese are finding ways to support their local food pantries. St. Timothy’s in-the-Valley Episcopal Church in Hurricane has continued to make meals for its Neighbors Feeding Neighbors ministry, and Trinity Episcopal Church in Morgantown has distributed meals as well, including to homeless individuals served by a local shelter.

Several other churches in the diocese are making masks for first responders and pharmacy workers. Christ Episcopal Church in Bluefield provided games and art supplies for residents of a children’s shelter. The diocese’s Highland Educational Project has donated food and cleaning supplies to agencies in McDowell County, one of the poorest counties in the country. And in Clarksburg, Christ Episcopal Church is ringing its 1870 bell every Sunday at 10 a.m. as a reminder of God’s love.

“We are a church dispersed throughout the state … but we are still united together through our common faith in and love of Jesus,” West Virginia Bishop Mike Klusmeyer said in the diocese’s ministry summary.

St. James’ ministers to a city of about 4,000 just off Interstate 64, a few miles west of the Virginia state line. Lewisburg is the county seat of Greenbrier County, whose 35,000 residents are spread across rural communities that extend into the hills east and west of the Greenbrier River. Median household income in the county is less than $40,000, and nearly 18% of residents live in poverty, according to census data.

As with the rest of West Virginia, the county has dealt in recent years with spikes in illegal opioid use and overdoses, though residents also suffer from elevated rates of diabetes, heart disease and other health problems.

“St. James’ mobile health unit is an attempt to bring medical care and oversight to the communities most in need. It is quickly deployable, and is ready to serve the people,” Klusmeyer said in an emailed statement to ENS. “The rector and people of St. James’ recognized the need for medical care, and quickly stepped up to provide this. Lives are already being touched.”

The idea for the mobile health unit was hatched after heavy rain and flooding hit Greenbrier and other West Virginia counties hard in 2016. Sitting on a hill, St. James’ wasn’t directly affected by the floods, so during the emergency, the church became a hub for aid distribution. Saxe, while serving on a long-term recovery task force, read an article about Marshall University in Huntington and its use of a mobile health unit. He reached out to contacts at the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine in Lewisburg and asked if they’d be interested in trying something similar.

“They were excited and said, ‘Let’s talk,’” Saxe told ENS.

From there, he helped form a working group with other health agencies, including the county health department and the Greenbrier County Health Alliance. They envisioned the mobile health unit as a resource for responding to disasters, like the recent floods, as well as supporting ongoing health initiatives.

“West Virginia, being a rural state, there’s a huge need for medical care in the outlying areas,” Saxe said. Medical care is more readily available in Lewisburg, “but you go 30 minutes in either direction, and you’re in health care dead zones.”

He and other coalition partners secured the money needed to build the mobile health unit in 2018. They were able to reduce labor costs when Greenbrier East High School volunteered its construction trade students to work on the project. They finished their work in May 2019, and a local company, Open Road RV, added the final touches to the trailer.

The Greenbrier County Health Department donated about $6,000 in medical equipment to outfit the unit, so it can function as “a physician’s exam room on wheels,” Saxe said.

Along with the trailer, canopies are available to create additional covered outdoor space wherever the mobile health unit has been dispatched. Saxe plans to train volunteers from St. James’ to help set up and take down the tents, and the church also administers the unit on behalf of the community coalition.

Since late March, the unit has been stationed in the parking lot of the Robert C. Byrd Clinic in Lewisburg so clinic staff can offer free COVID-19 tests. More than 1,000 tests have been conducted in Greenbrier County by the clinic and other health agencies, though only nine cases have been confirmed so far in the county.

If the county is able to avoid a severe outbreak, Saxe said he looks forward to offering the mobile health unit to public health agencies for other uses.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.