Task force aims to test 1,000 a day, whether they can pay or not

By , Special to The Daily Memphian Updated: April 07, 2020 2:32 PM CT | Published: April 07, 2020 1:04 PM CT
David Waters
Special to The Daily Memphian

David Waters

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

 The Institute for Public Service Reporting is based at the University of Memphis and supported financially by U of M, private grants and donations made through the University Foundation. Its work is published by The Daily Memphian through a paid-use agreement. Follow the Institute on Facebook or Twitter @psr_memphis.

The local COVID-19 Task Force is developing a comprehensive coronavirus testing strategy to widely expand testing to more under-served areas and vulnerable populations of Shelby County.

Coronavirus Live Blog, April 7: Tennessee at 4,138 cases, 72 deaths

The plan seeks to test 1,000 people a day at “safety-net” clinics, mobile testing facilities, and added Tiger Lane-style sites for the next six months, then transition to primary and urgent care settings by November.

The expanded testing would be phased in, starting with all who are showing symptoms of COVID-19, regardless of whether they have insurance or other means to pay.

“The goal isn’t so much to expand the volume of testing but the equity of testing, both demographically and geographically,” said Jenny Bartlett-Prescott, chief operating officer of Church Health who is leading the task force’s testing subgroup.

The task force plans to use data collected by the health department that breaks down those who have tested positive for COVID-19 by race, gender, age and ZIP code. Mobile testing sites would be dispatched where more testing is needed. 

In the second phase, testing would expand to all healthcare workers, first responders, and staff and residents of homeless shelters, nursing homes/assisted living facilities, large housing complexes, and other high-density populations, regardless of whether they are symptomatic.

The third phase would involve serological testing, so-called “immunity testing,” that could identify those with immunity to the virus. That would allow healthcare workers, first responders, and other essential workers who are no longer at risk to return to work sooner.

Shelby County numbers, April 7:
Tested for COVID-19: 9,354
Confirmed cases: 845
Deaths: 19

Local health officials believe ramped-up testing is vital for lessening the current wave of coronavirus and the next one.

”We need a greatly expanded team for identifying cases and contact tracing,” Dr. Jon McCullers, a task force member and dean of clinical affairs at UTHSC, said in a symposium Monday. “That hopefully will allow us to navigate additional waves without shutting down the economy.”

Expanded testing also is urgently needed in more economically distressed parts of the community, task force members say.

“Communities of color are significantly under-represented in the testing,” Alisa Haushalter, executive director of the Shelby County Health Department, said Monday. “We know specific ZIP codes are under-represented.”

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The task force is working to overcome a number of hurdles to widely expanded testing in Shelby County.

  • Finding and training enough people to conduct and oversee the testing at all sites. The Christ Community testing site, for example, requires 10-15 people per shift. That includes medical personnel and volunteers.
  • Securing enough testing supplies, especially masks used by medical personnel at the sites, swabs used to collect specimens, and sterile tubes for the swabs.
  • Finding enough labs to process the tests in 24-48 hours. UTSHC is using robots to process and report the Tiger Lane tests within 24 hours. Some private labs are overwhelmed with tests and taking up to 7 days to process and report.
  • Standardizing the reporting of results from all sites, including private medical offices.
  • Improving the ability of health department officials to trace and get in touch with the contacts of those who test positive. The health department is adding and training investigators to identify and contact people who have come in contact with anyone who has tested positive.
  • Supporting those who test positive and helping them stay quarantined or isolated as needed for up to 14 days.
  • Developing a metrics dashboard to let the public know what testing is accomplishing.
  • Working with federal and state governments as well as foundations, nonprofits and health insurers to provide funding for the ramped-up testing.

Operating drive-up testing sites like the one at Tiger Lane will cost up to $150,000 a month, officials said.

The comprehensive strategy seeks to expand testing to 500 a day at “safety net” clinics such as Christ Community Health Services, Church Health, Memphis Health Center, Case Management, Inc., Tri-State Community Health Center and the Healing Center.

Christ Community’s Third Street drive-thru location increased its COVID-19 testing capacity to 200 a day on Monday. It has been testing 50-75 people a day by appointment.

The nonprofit health organization is working with churches and others to begin testing as soon as possible in Hickory Hill and Frayser/Raleigh.

Memphis Health Center on Crump, Tri-State on Knight Arnold, Case Management on Alice, and the Healing Center on Tchulahoma hope to begin testing on Friday, April 10.

UTHSC and the county health department hope to open two new Tiger Lane-style testing stations like the one now being operated at the Fairgrounds.

One possible new site would be at old Georgia Avenue Elementary. The goal is to provide 150 tests a day at each site.

UTHSC would continue to support pre-test screening and scheduling to sites, lab processing, and post-test notification of negative and positive results to individuals.

UTHSC and the county are working to identify people to staff those sites.

The task force is working with the health department, local hospitals, and “safety net” clinics to provide mobile testing at sites in particularly vulnerable high-density communities.

The mobile testing sites would focus on large apartment buildings, homeless shelters, assisted living facilities and nursing homes, jails and prisons.

They would include special testing events targeted to specific neighborhoods or populations, based on data that shows “holes” in testing. The Memphis and Shelby County Fire Departments are involved in those plans.

Task force members also are working with local hospitals to test all high-risk front-line healthcare workers such as EMTs, ER doctors, nurses, pulmonologists, and other specialists.

In addition, they want all health workers in nursing home and assisted living facilities to be tested for COVID-19.

The task force hopes to enlist the Memphis Society to take the lead on expanding coronavirus testing at private medical practices across the community.

Walgreens is expanding COVID-19 drive-thru testing to 15 new sites in seven states including Tennessee, the company announced Tuesday, April 7.

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Dr. Scott Strome, executive dean of the UTHSC College of Medicine, said expanded testing will help local health officials identify and contain potential mini-outbreaks across the community.

“We know that certain areas and populations in our county are going to be harder hit than others, simply because of a lack of resources, lack of ability to do social distancing, lack of access to care, higher ratios of underlying health conditions, and so on,” Strom said. “We need more testing.”

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Covid-19 Task force


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