The US Isn't Slowing COVID-19. These SoCal Clinics Mimic A Country That Has

Annie Eun takes a nasopharyngeal swab from Miranda Mears using a testing booth modeled after a South Korean design. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

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As demand for coronavirus tests skyrockets in Southern California, community clinics like the one Ellen Ahn runs serving Korean immigrants in Buena Park have stepped up to help meet the need. And as she wades into the brave new world of COVID-19 testing, she's leaning hard into her immigrant roots.

Like most of her patients, Ahn emigrated from South Korea — at only age 1, but she is bilingual and consumes Korean TV news reports and newspapers.

While the U.S. struggles mightily to beat back the coronavirus, she's watched for months as South Korea has flattened its curve through vigorous testing and contact tracing. The country continues to take aggressive measures as new cases crop up.

"The truth is Asia has done much better at controlling the virus," Ahn said. "This COVID-19 crisis has opened up most Americans' eyes in understanding we are not as badass as we think we are."

Ellen Ahn is the executive director of Korean Community Services, which has a clinic in Buena Park. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

She's been looking outside the U.S. for ways to protect staff and patients at Korean Community Services. And there was this one idea she loved: A hospital in Seoul had built testing stations that looked like telephone booths. The patient goes inside the booth while the tester is on the outside. There's no contact, no shared airspace. Anh was determined her team could make something similar.

"We're all immigrants or children of immigrants," Ahn said. "We're resourceful. And I think the more resourceful, the more crazy your thinking is, the more responsive you can be."

A booth is disinfected as a nurse speaks to a woman, right, during a COVID-19 coronavirus test at a testing booth outside Yangji hospital in Seoul, S. Korea on March 17, 2020. (Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images)

Her facilities team removed the door to one of the clinic's offices.

In went a new door with a window, a built-in counter, and two oversized, arm-length black rubber gloves attached directly to the door.

The testing booth at Korean Community Services was created by replacing a door to the office with a new, tricked-out door that has a counter, built-in rubber gloves and a disinfectant sprinkler system. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

The gloves look like disembodied hands of a mad scientist.

Industrial-strength rubber work gloves are built into the booth at the Buena Park location of Korean Community Services. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

In what is a typical visit, a mask-wearing woman named Jung last week walked up to the new door, sat down on a stool and placed her wallet on the counter. She looked expectantly at the clinic employee standing on the other side of the door.

"I scheduled my testing for 1:40, but I don't know what time it is now," Jung said apologetically in Korean.

The health worker, Annie Eun, good-naturedly told her through the newly-installed intercom that the time is good now.

She asked the woman to open the test kit on the counter. Meanwhile, Eun had placed her arms through the black rubber gloves in the door. With those gloves, Eun pulled a long swab from the kit.

"Come closer, and please be patient though it feels uncomfortable," Eun said.

Annie Eun tests patients for COVID-19 from indoors. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Jung leaned forward, as Eun funneled the swab several inches into her nose. Jung shuddered and coughed.

Coughing and sneezing is a common reaction to the deeply uncomfortable nasopharyngeal swab test. Eun said later she's relieved that she never has to share any airspace with the patient.

"I feel much more comfortable," Eun said. "I feel safe."

After Jung got up to go, Eun turned on a disinfecting system built into the top of the door. A fine mist of a bleach solution covered the door and counter.

A sprinkler system built into the door sprays a disinfecting solution after each patient visit. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

The huge demand for coronavirus testing means the clinic is also drawing non-Koreans from all over northwest Orange County. Miranda Mears needed a clean bill of health before she was allowed to go back to work at a homeless shelter.

"I was nervous about having to go in somewhere. I feel like you'd be around too many people," Mears said after her test. She looked back at the booth. "I liked the gloves. I liked the glass. I liked the distance between us."

ANOTHER LOCAL BOOTH, AND MAYBE A VAN?

The tests are free, paid for by the county at about $170 a pop, Ahn said. About a thousand people have passed through the booth over the last month — which has already earned at least one copycat nearby. Ahn's friend Tricia Nguyen leads the largest social services agency for Orange County's Vietnamese community.

"She built hers," Nguyen said giddily. "And I built mine."

Southland Integrated Services, which serves OC's Vietnamese American community, also built its own Korean-style testing booth. (Tricia Nguyen)

Nguyen said before switching to a testing booth at its Garden Grove location, Southland Integrated Services had been testing patients outdoors under a tent in the parking lot there.

"That's a lot of exposure," Nguyen said. "So we're trying to save the PPP supplies because we're so limited on the supplies, and then we want to protect our providers, right?"

The Korean-style testing booths have been working well when patients can drive themselves to the clinics. But many monolingual working-class Asian immigrants don't have ready transportation, said Ellen Ahn at the Buena Park clinic. And that's the next group that she hopes to reach.

"The average American is struggling with testing right now," Ahn said. "Imagine if you don't speak English, you're worried about the next meal, and you've lost your job. If I can make that process a little easier then I've done my job."

Her next project? Converting a van into a mobile version of the testing booth, where health care workers would sit inside and conduct tests by sticking their hands through gloves built into windows. She has been up late at night studying images of COVID-19 testing vans being used in India.

A health official in India uses a swab to collect a sample from a man for COVID-19 testing from inside a mobile testing van. (Sam Panthaky/AFP via Getty Images)

Ahn whipped out her phone to scroll through images and share them with the clinic's dentist Jamie Kang, who has become the de facto infection control specialist.

"This is another van in Delhi," she said, showing a photo to Kang. Ahn wondered aloud: "Can we pop out our window and do this?"

For this immigrant, there really is a world of possibilities.

Jean Yu provided Korean translation for this story.