A new Houston-based organization – the Cure COVID Consortium – aims to offer prevention, testing and treatment to save lives and accelerate solutions that will end the novel coronavirus public health emergency.
Known as the CCC, the organization was founded in the early days of the pandemic by Dr. Joseph Gathe, who is co-leading COVID-19 care at United Memorial Medical Center (UMMC), his wife – serial entrepreneur and strategist Deanna Breaux-Gathe – and Dr. Joseph Varon, the other lead physician on the COVID-19 front line at UMMC.
Gathe, a pioneering infectious disease clinician and longtime HIV specialist in Houston, now has been at the forefront of two life-changing global virus outbreaks in his four decades of practice.
“Obviously, the coronavirus was brand new to us and I began to see that there was going to be a significant need in the community to help fight the pandemic on a variety of levels,” said Gathe. “Pulling from what I learned in the HIV pandemic, I realized that there was a lot that was lacking early on as far as education, access to testing and access to treatment.”
The idea gained wings when Gathe received calls from Tina Knowles Lawson – a businesswoman and creative force, who is the mother of entertainers Beyoncé Knowles and Solange Knowles.
“She wanted to do something to help,” Gathe said. “She knew this was going to be a problem.”
Knowles Lawson connected the CCC with Beyoncé’s BeyGOOD Foundation and Start Small, a $1 billion COVID-19 relief fund started and financed by Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey. Both organizations are supporting grassroots efforts addressing COVID-19 in underserved communities. Cure COVID Consortium received support from BeyGOOD and Start Small via “sizable donations,” Breaux-Gathe said.
The money has allowed the CCC to offer accessible testing since May in communities of color.
“We administer all of our COVID-19 tests for free,” Breaux-Gathe said. “We have partnered with several organizations and churches around the Houston area.”
While the CCC awaits federal status as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, Bread of Life, Inc. – an affiliated nonprofit of St. John’s Downtown Church – serves as its fiduciary agent. Another related organization is working with the CCC on contact tracing. For decades, St. John’s senior pastors, Rudy Rasmus and Juanita Rasmus, and the church have been at the forefront of urgent grassroots crises, namely hunger, homelessness and HIV. The church also is well known as a spiritual and philanthropic base for Beyoncé and her family.
When businessman Jeffrey L. Boney, a city council member in Missouri City, Texas and associate editor of the Houston Forward Times, contracted COVID-19 in March, he recovered under the care of Gathe and Varon at UMMC in north Houston. That’s one reason why he agreed to serve as chairman of the CCC’s board of directors and as a spokesperson for the organization.
“Our vision, long term, is that we want to be the premier resource for fighting COVID-19 and doing it with compassionate treatment and research strategies,” said Boney, who experienced near-heart failure, pneumonia and a blood clot that remains in one lung. “Cure COVID Consortium is so important and needed because we have to do the research, we have to do the testing, we have to provide the treatment and find out if what we are doing is working. Everything that was done for me worked, by the grace of God, and it’s working for many others who have been treated under the care of Dr. Gathe and Dr. Varon. What we have to do is not wait on other people. We have to be proactive and aggressive to address this pandemic.”
The CCC is focusing on all people while targeting Black and Latinx individuals. To that end, the CCC board is diverse, inclusive and representative of Houston communities.
Amid the preventive measures of wearing masks, thoroughly washing hands and physical distancing, COVID-19 continues to levy a heavy illness, hospitalization and death burden on communities of color.
“What we found is that people are going to the ERs and hospitals to be tested. They may not even get tested, but if they are and then test positive, there is typically no follow-up – no treatment. They are just being told to go home and self-quarantine for 14 days,” Boney said.
Gathe warned that the lessons of the HIV epidemic must be heeded to avoid missteps with COVID-19.
“The biggest thing that we learned in the HIV epidemic is that you have to involve the entire society in the response. The medical community by itself is not able to do it,” he said. “With HIV, until we got the gay community, the Black community, the churches, the politicians, the drug companies involved – and it took years to get that done – we were not successful in dealing with that epidemic. We cannot afford to make the mistakes now that we made back then because of how rapidly this pandemic is moving in our community.”
Gathe said the CCC is working with partners including the NAACP and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee to address a COVID-19 leadership vacuum in Washington and Austin.
“We are going to have to solve this ourselves,” Gathe explained. “As we are opening up the cities and may be opening up the schools, it is the Black and brown communities that are at more risk of getting this disease process – in both the percentage of people infected as well as the percentage of people who go in the hospitals and die. If you have to go back to work as a teacher – if you are working as nurses, doctors, firefighters, delivery drivers – come and get tested. You may need to be tested every two weeks if you are in harm’s way. The tests are only going to be there if people use them. We can’t go back and ask for funds if nobody is being tested. But, if we go through our funds quickly because we are testing so many people, we can go back … and say we need more help. People have to come out and support the initiative for people to continue to support us.”
Anyone who wants to know their status can be tested by the CCC. All test sites are walk-up and drive thru.
Currently, the CCC’s robust and efficient testing operation administers 120 to 130 tests per hour, Breaux-Gathe said.
The CCC has been testing at Bread of Life, 2019 Crawford, every other Wednesday. There will be free testing available on July 18 at Community of Faith, on July 19 at Windsor Village United Methodist Church and on July 26 at Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church.
The CCC also has a mobile unit under construction (and could end up with a second one) to deliver testing deeper into communities where people are not leaving their homes because of the heat or may not have transportation to travel to fixed testing sites.
“We are running at 100 miles an hour, but this virus is running at 120, so we are just trying to outpace it and put all the pieces together,” Breaux-Gathe said. “We’re just looking for people to be proactive in their health. People are waiting too long to get treatment, but they’re also waiting too long to get tested. Our mission is prevention, testing and treatment.” Visit curecovidconsortium.org to register for a free COVID-19 test.