During the early, chaotic days of the COVID-19 pandemic, reliable tests for the coronavirus were in high demand and almost nowhere to be found, especially in rural areas.

“In March, access to tests was the No. 1 puzzle for everyone to figure out, whether you were in education, a first responder or a utility worker,” said Casey Ratlief, director of government relations and grassroots advocacy at the Grand Canyon State Electric Cooperative Association in Tempe.

“If you had to show up for work, everybody wanted to ensure that those employees had access to tests. Co-ops were no different and, because of our role as essential workers, we felt it was even more paramount that we had access to tests.”

Ratlief took matters into his own hands. For several weeks, he pursued leads at regional hospitals and the state health department for extra COVID-19 testing kits. His search led him to the University of Arizona, which manufactured and then shipped about 550 nasal swab kits to seven co-ops.

“We received enough tests to relieve the burden of finding a source, so if an employee or two showed symptoms, we could get them and the folks working closest to them tested,” said Ratlief. “I explained the co-ops’ role as essential workers in their communities and thankfully, [the university] got it right out of the gate.”

Arizona co-ops were the beneficiaries of an effort at the university’s Health Sciences Biorepository to make and distribute as many kits as possible to reservations and other remote areas. During one weekend earlier this spring, for example, scientists made 1,600 nasal swab kits.

“Some of the municipalities and the counties in rural Arizona were struggling to get their hands on tests. Electric cooperatives couldn’t get any,” said Buchanan Davis, who runs the university’s county and municipal outreach initiatives.

Davis quickly understood co-ops’ role as essential workers in the communities. As a land-grant university, it helps operate county extension offices, many of which are served by co-ops.

“A lot of our constituency is the same constituency as the cooperatives,” Davis said. “We see co-ops as the lifeblood of these communities. Economic development and everything else depends on inexpensive, reliable power.”

The co-ops were responsible for finding a local medical facility to store, administer and process the kits. Here, too, the university’s assistance was invaluable, said Ratlief.

“We had a swab that was FDA-approved, but not all of the labs at first knew if they could process our kits,” said Davis, noting that most providers can now accommodate the swabs. “It took a lot of coordination in the beginning…we had to make cold calls to a lot of hospitals.”

The seventh cooperative principle of commitment to community has been vital in protecting the public against the deadly coronavirus, said Ratlief. One of the co-op recipients, Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Cooperative, even donated some of its share of testing kits to nonprofit health clinics in its Willcox service area.

The partnership with the university is “a textbook example of organizations coming together, in this case the co-ops and universities, to care for communities in our state,” said Ratlief. “We're really thankful that the university stepped up, and we're thankful for the leadership of the individual co-ops that were able to get this process taken care of and sorted out at a local level.”