Georgians line up for COVID-19 testing as statewide availability grows
A mobile testing strike team comprised of Georgia Army National Guard Soldiers of the 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team administered more than 100 Covid 19 tests to staff of Central State Hospital in Milledgeville one day last week. The statewide deployment can perform 1,500 tests per day as part of Georgia’s push to expand testing. Contributed by Capt. Fred Dablemont
Last week, Geannine Mauldin of Cartersville came down with the symptoms everyone dreads these days – fever combined with an occasional cough, muscle aches, exhaustion and loss of taste and appetite.
Mauldin looked online for a state COVID-19 testing location near her and found the Clarence Brown Conference Center in Cartersville. Driving in and getting her test went off without a hitch.
“(There was) no problem at all,” she said. “I commented on a post, and a person who was helping do the testing told me they test anyone … I filled out a generic form … and drove to the front door. They came to my car and did the swab.”
Expanding access to testing is now a top priority for Gov. Brian Kemp, who detailed the state’s progress in a press conference Monday.
“As I’ve said many times, the expansion of testing is key to our fight against COVID-19,” he said. “For weeks, the state has worked closely with private labs and local health departments to address the need for more testing and ramp up capacity in each region of Georgia. We have leveraged partnerships with well-respected companies – like CVS, Walmart, and Walgreens – to open more specimen collection sites and encourage symptomatic Georgians to get tested.”
On Tuesday, the governor announced the state health department reached a milestone of 13,000 new tests reported to its tracking website. That follows recent efforts to ramp up COVID-19 testing, including this week’s launch of a mobile testing initiative with Walmart and eTrueNorth to bring drive-thru testing to sites in Augusta, Milledgeville and Tifton.
It’s good that more people are getting tested, but trends matter more than data points, said Georgia State University public health professor Harry Heiman.
“It’s hard to know what to make out of a single day’s data,” he said. “If you want to cherry-pick a good day and hold it out as a sign of progress, that’s one approach. It would be nice to see what the level of sustained testing capacity is over the next few weeks or months.
“Just based on my own tracking, we’ve had about 4,500 tests per day for the past two days and then close to 13,000 reported today,” he added.
The state Department of Public Health reported Tuesday it has collected data from more than 140,000 tests and nearly 25,000 of those came back positive for COVID-19. Not so long ago, being screened for the virus was more difficult – Georgia ranked 36th in the state for per capita testing as of Monday, but just a week before, it was ranked 42nd.
Back in March, one of Mauldin’s daughters, a patient care technician at WellStar Cobb Hospital, was exposed to a COVID-19 patient. Both she and her sister started experiencing the telltale symptoms and tried to be tested, but the sister who does not work in health care was turned away, Mauldin said.
At that time, testing was limited to frontline medical workers or people who are especially vulnerable to the disease such as people over 60 and people with immune system disorders. In mid-March, the state operated a testing facility in each of its 18 public health districts. A smattering of hospitals and private practices also offered limited testing as supplies came in.
Now, 49 test sites operate across the state, although the state Department of Public Health’s website still says a referral is needed from a health care provider or a local public health official. And the Georgia National Guard has joined the fight, testing 1,500 people per day with teams that deploy statewide where needed. Georgia National Guard Adjutant General Tom Carden is overseeing the testing logistics and has been a constant presence at Kemp’s COVID-response updates since they started in mid-March.
The state is partnering with companies including CVS Health, Walgreens and Walmart to provide testing sites, and Augusta University Health System is also offering free, statewide screening and testing through telemedicine and its ExpressCare app at augustahealth.org.
Private laboratories also report more testing capacity as the state lifts some restrictions on businesses the governor ordered closed early this month to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Both Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp reported this week their testing capacities exceed demand and they have no backlogs.
Testing is free to patients because of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. LabCorp offers an at-home test, and Quest offers an at-home antibody test, which they say can determine whether a patient has had COVID-19 in the past. Both home tests sell for about $120.
More tests represent a step in the right direction, because one of the most important ways to slow the pandemic is to identify people who carry the virus, said Dr. Jessica Schwind, assistant professor of epidemiology at Georgia Southern University’s Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health.
“Anytime capacity can support the testing of individuals outside of high-risk groups, i.e. health care workers, immuno-compromised, et cetera, it is a good sign,” she said. “Testing allows the identification of positives and the opportunity to trace and test their contacts. It is important we catch hotspots of transmission early in order to make a difference in the state. The only way we can achieve this goal is by increasing the number of tests done per day.”
“It is important that testing continues to increase because we still have a ways to go,” she added.
Schwind also said people should not take this bit of good news to mean the danger is past.
“While testing is an important component of addressing this pandemic, it is crucial everyone remembers the best way to protect against COVID-19 is to continue to adhere to social distancing guidelines,” she said. “With some businesses reopening, it does not mean everything is back to normal. Community transmission is still occurring, and public health recommendations still apply.”
That means social distancing, hand washing and wearing masks in public remain important for all Georgians, she said.
Heiman agreed and said there are a number of other steps he would like to see, including monitoring asymptomatic people in prisons and long-term care facilities across the state, expanding the state’s ability to rapidly identify cases and trace contacts as well as increasing testing availability to those who do not have cars.
“I still have a long way to go before I’m feeling more comfortable that we’re in a position to open up the state,” he said. “I’m still very concerned about the number of businesses that have already been opened, and I’m very concerned about the governor’s pending decision about the shelter in place order that’s due to expire at the end of the week. I think it would be a very dangerous decision to modify that in any way until capacity across a number of areas is enhanced.”
Mauldin said her one gripe with the test is that it took longer than the 72 hours she was promised to get her results back – she took the test last Wednesday and got her results back Tuesday. The good news is she’s happy to report she is COVID-19-free.
She urges anybody who is not feeling well to get the test done.
“If you feel you have been exposed or have any symptoms, I would recommend it,” she said. “It is easy, and the pain from the test is much more pleasant than being put on a ventilator or exposing a loved one to it.”
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