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One need look no further than Escambia County to see how successful mobile testing can be in identifying positive cases of COVID-19.
A week after opening a testing site at its Brownsville Community Center, Escambia saw its number of cases jump from 42 to 81 this week in a single reporting day.
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That huge increase occurred when tests of 2,367 people, all conducted by Assension Sacred Heart Hospital and sent to outside labs, were returned and 114 showed positive results.
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“The majority of those tested were from Escambia County,” hospital spokesman Mike Burke said.
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And while the numbers themselves look terrifying, identifying as many cases as possible, as quickly as possible, can save lives, according to Okaloosa County Commission Chairman Trey Goodwin.
“If you can isolate the relatively healthy people and have them shelter in place for two weeks, you can possibly keep them from infecting a high-risk person,” Goodwin said. ”If we could know everyone who has it so they could self-isolate for 14 days, we might be able to draw this thing to an end fairly quickly.“
Unfortunately for Okaloosa County, the resources required to set up a mobile testing site or two simply aren’t available right now.
“While county health departments have plans available for mobile testing sites, at this point in time, we do not have sufficient specimen collection kits (swabs and viral media) or personal protective equipment (PPE) to meet the demand of a drive-thru testing service, said Allison McDaniel, spokeswoman for the Okaloosa County branch of the Florida Department of Health.
Most mobile testing sites in Florida are run by either the federal government or by a private or not-for-profit health care system, McDaniel said.
That is true in Escambia County, where Ascension Sacred Heart Hospital has taken a leadership role in the mobile testing. Its competitor, Baptist Hospital, has established sites of its own in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.
“We have no such corollary entity in our community,” Okaloosa County Commissioner Nathan Boyles said.
Fort Walton Beach Medical Center, Okaloosa’s largest hospital, is run by the for-profit HCA Healthcare, as is the Twin Cities Hospital in Niceville.
The medical center, one of a chain of 184 hospitals across the country, did not respond Wednesday to questions regarding mobile testing and the limitations of for-profit hospitals.
Also in Escambia County, the hospitals and the Health Department have a partner in Community Health Northwest Florida, a nonprofit dedicated to providing health care services to low income and homeless people.
Community Health Northwest Florida, has staff trained by Sacred Heart manning mobile testing centers at Pensacola’s Brownsville Community Center and at a newly opened location in Cantonment, according to Ann Papadelias.
Papadelias said as of Tuesday the agency had tested 317 people.
Community Health has also provided staff to work at the Sacred Heart call center, where screening of those looking to be tested is conducted.
Also in Escambia County, some elected officials have campaigned for the mobile testing.
Commissioner Lumon May secured the Brownsville Community Center parking lot for testing, Papadelias said, and Commissioner Steven Barry advocated for the Cantonment testing site.
“We all came together and asked, ’How can we get more testing here?’ ” Papadelias said.
By comparison, Okaloosa County’s commissioners and city officials have relied heavily during the COVID-19 outbreak on the advice of DOH head Karen Chapman and Public Safety Director Patrick Maddox.
“To create a mobile testing site there would be some licensure issues addressed, which is why a medical facility would have to partner with the county and Health Department to make the testing happen,” Goodwin said. “That would be done in conjunction with local government as well as state partners.
But the bottom line is having the materials to perform the tests. Papadelias said in Escambia County “our test supplies seem to be pretty solid right now.”
That isn’t the case in Okaloosa County.
“We are working with the state to improve our testing capacity, but resources are flowing to harder hit jurisdictions in South Florida,” Boyles said. “Even as we improve sample collection here, we still are having to send those tests somewhere outside of our community for the actual testing, as we do not have the equipment here and there are backlogs at those labs.”
Testing for the coronavirus is available at the Department of Health building in Fort Walton Beach for people who meet a strict criteria, McDaniel said.
• Contacts to confirmed cases of COVID-19
• Health care workers with symptoms
• Patients 65 years and older with symptoms
• Patients with serious underlying medical conditions with symptoms
• First responders (EMS, Law Enforcement, Fire) with symptoms
“We also provide testing to patients in any long-term care facility who have symptoms, but those tests are done at the facility not at our offices,” McDaniel said. “Testing will continue at DOH-Okaloosa as long as our specimen collection kits and PPE is available.”
Results from the Bureau of Public Health labs take from 24 to 72 hours, and private companies Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp can take between five and seven days, she said.
Call 850-344-0566 for screening for testing.
Last week, a private Okaloosa County business began offering drive-through testing for COVID-19.
Dr. Jason Boole at Northwest Florida Ears Nose and Throat on Racetrack Road in Fort Walton Beach has made himself available to groups of about 10 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Appointments can be made for 10:30 and 11 a.m., according to receptionist Andrea Bran.
The facility has tested about 50 people thus far, Bran said. Patients are screened before testing.