Limited COVID-19 testing locations open in Georgia with tight eligibility 

By: - March 18, 2020 8:42 am

The first few COVID-19 testing sites in Georgia are opening this week with very limited capacity available even after a doctor’s referral. This New York coronavirus drive-thru testing site is up and running at the Theodore Roosevelt Nature Center at Jones Beach State Park. Al Bello/Getty Images

Drive-through coronavirus testing is now available in a handful of Georgia communities, according to representatives from local public health departments, and other testing facilities are set to follow in coming days.

Columbus and Valdosta are home to the early rollout of testing on a very limited availability. Officials from the Cobb and Douglas Public Health Department said they hope to launch local drive-through testing services Wednesday, and other regions are also pledging to offer testing soon.

The Georgia Recorder contacted officials in each of the state’s 18 public health districts and learned supplies are limited where they are available, and tests will only be given out to select people for the foreseeable future, typically those who are especially at risk from the infection or those in sensitive jobs such as medical workers. State officials are directing people who want tests to contact their doctor for a referral.

Testing now available

West Central Health District spokeswoman Pamela Kirkland said there is one drive-through testing facility open in Columbus run by MercyMed of Columbus and another will open soon.

“We are working on a drive-thru testing site here in Columbus, but I don’t know if it will be ready to go by the end of the week,” she said. “We are waiting on supplies. Patients will be tested only if they meet criteria and by appointment only. MercyMed in Columbus is doing a drive-thru collection/test- but is by appointment only, and if a patient meets the criteria for testing.”

Concerned patients and primary care offices can call 706-321-6300 for screening information, but test supplies are limited and only pre-screened patients will be accepted.

Public information officer Kristin Patten said the only drive-through testing facility in the South Health District is now at South Georgia Medical Center in Valdosta.

According to the center’s website, tests are in limited supply, and not everyone will be tested.

Limited testing is also available in Dougherty County in southwest Georgia, where the county coroner is investigating several weekend deaths as potentially tied to coronavirus, according to the Albany Herald.

“There is some specimen collecting being done via a drive-up site at the Dougherty County Health Department, but it’s currently very limited and only for those that have already been screened by phone for info, deemed eligible for testing, and sent there by a physician,” said Southwest Health District Director Charles Ruis.

Planning to test soon

The Cobb and Douglas Public Health Department plans to open a drive-through testing facility at Jim R. Miller Park in Marietta, according to the Marietta Daily Journal.

The facility is tentatively set to open Wednesday, and only people referred to the public health department by a physician are eligible for testing.

“Currently, we are finalizing plans to offer drive-through testing ONLY for our highest risk individuals, who if they had the virus, would dramatically impact many individuals in the entire community (e.g., health care workers, first responders, teachers, nursing home residents). … COVID-19 testing will not be provided to the general community at this time,” reads a statement on the department website.

Both the Fulton County Board of Health and DeKalb Health District are overseen by Director Sandra Ford, who said tests are not available now, but the departments will partner with private labs. The two metro Atlanta counties are home to 48 of the state’s 146 confirmed COVID-19 cases.

“Neither DeKalb nor Fulton Counties currently have COVID-19 tests,” she said. “We will be providing specimen collection sometime this week, and those specimens will be sent to private labs for testing. Due to the limited number of specimen collection kits we currently have available, at this point, clients will only be seen if referred by a health care provider. Therefore, specimen collection sites will not be disclosed to the general public in order to protect the privacy of those being screened. Testing will be done at no cost to those referred.”

Some private health care facilities offer testing, but much remains unclear, said District 4 Health District public information officer Hayla Folden, whose district includes part of west Georgia.

“Right now, we don’t know which facilities are testing, and that’s part of the issue,” she said. “People are asking us and coming to our clinics looking to be tested, and we don’t offer that service inside the health department. Some physicians’ offices are doing testing. Some hospitals are doing testing. Some are not. We don’t really know.”

Some metro Atlanta health care providers have stopped accepting visits from sick patients except for people who have undergone phone screenings to ensure they are not an infection risk for other patients or staff at the office.

“We do not have enough protective gear in our office for the patients or staff to address the volume of sick patients,” wrote one medical group in an email to patients announcing such a change. “We do not have tests for Corona virus (COVID-19) in our office. Contrary to media reports, we do not have access to testing for our patients either.”

Still, Georgians who want to be tested are urged to first contact their primary care doctor, if they have one, said Anna Adams, vice president of government relations with the Georgia Hospital Association.

If they don’t have one or don’t get the help they need, they should pick up the phone and call an urgent care or their local hospital, anything but come to a building full of potentially at-risk people.

“The advice right now is to just not show up at the (Emergency Department) because we’re trying to protect our health care workers, protect other patients and also preserve the personal protective equipment that we have because we have to use that every time a patient comes in – and it is getting scarce,” she said.

Not every health care provider in the state has access to testing right now, Adams noted.

“What’s going to work in one community is not necessarily what’s going to work in another, so we are relying on our local health departments and district health departments to help us navigate where the tests exist,” she said.

“In other communities where we’ve seen pretty substantial outbreaks, the public, once they recognize that lots of people are getting tested and maybe a lot of people may have been exposed, they’re panicking and they’re showing up to the (Emergency Department),” Adams said. “And in that situation, we’re having to figure out how to test that many people without exposing other patients and our health care workers.”

Testing so far

The Georgia Department of Public Health tested over 420 Georgians for the new coronavirus since the start of the current worldwide pandemic, Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Katherine Toomey said Tuesday.

Gov. Brian Kemp said by the end of the week, the department should be able to process about 200 tests statewide each day. Kemp announced on Twitter Tuesday night 500 test kits had been delivered to the health department from Quest Diagnostics, a private clinical laboratory company.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 146 Georgians have tested positive for the virus, according to the health department. One has died, a 67-year-old Cobb County man with underlying medical conditions.

In an online media briefing Tuesday, Kemp said the state is still working with federal officials to set up regional testing sites in Georgia’s 18 public health districts.

Adams, with the hospital association, said she thinks the situation will improve once the regional test sites are up and running because they will be available to people other than sickest patients.

“The thing I think is important to remember is that even if you do test positive, there is no treatment for COVID-19,” Adams said.

The majority of people, she said, will have mild to moderate symptoms and will be asked to isolate themselves at home.

“We want to reserve those tests that we have, while they’re precious, for the most severe patients,” she said.

While Kemp said he expects the state’s testing capacity to improve soon, he cautioned against people venturing out on their own to pursue testing. Some price gouging complaints have accused sites of charging as much as $300.

Attorney General Chris Carr reports his office has received 47 complaints of price gouging during Georgia’s outbreak this month, including two related to high prices on testing.

“I would just encourage Georgians, if they feel like they need a test, to please call their doctor and get that information and work out the protocol for doing that,” Kemp said.

“Certainly, people can pay for individual tests if they would like, but the information that’s coming from their doctor, from the Georgia Department of Public Health and other government agencies are really the best place to learn about who needs to be tested and where you can go to do that to make sure you are not being taken advantage of,” he added.

It’s important  for Georgians who want to get tested is to call ahead so they do not put others at risk, said Toomey of the state’s public health department.

Georgians should keep in mind that not everyone who wants a test is likely to get one, she said.

“Not every individual who wants to be tested can be tested because of limited capacity, but this is safe,” she said. “This is actually the guidance that we are getting from our federal partners. We want to test those individuals at highest risk and can continue to work with individuals in the community, managing them at home and monitoring them as we have many of our patients already, safely and easily, without risk to the community or to them or their families.”

Deputy Editor Jill Nolin contributed to this report.

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting.