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As officials weather criticism, hospitals launch drive-thru coronavirus testing, online evaluations

As officials weather criticism, hospitals launch drive-thru coronavirus testing, online evaluations

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CHESTERFIELD — The Mercy hospital system announced Friday that it will open a drive-thru testing site for suspected cases of COVID-19, and SSM Health launched an online evaluation tool for those worried they have contracted the virus.

The measures come as state and federal officials, who have weathered criticism for days, work to boost low testing numbers. President Donald Trump called Friday for more drive-thru coronavirus testing sites. Gov. Mike Parson said the state is partnering with the University of Missouri and Washington University to increase tests; St. Louis County Executive Sam Page also called Friday for more testing.

“I don’t believe we have enough testing in our country or in our community,” Page said.

Health professionals expect increased positive results as testing increases: Missouri has tested 94, and St. Louis County at least 20 so far; only four cases statewide have returned positive.

“We’re going to get a lot more tests, and a lot more positives,” said Enbal Shacham, a professor at St. Louis University’s College for Public Health and Social Justice.

Testing at the Mercy site is expected to begin Saturday. The location will open from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. daily, until further notice.

The site will test patients who have been screened by Mercy’s coronavirus support line and meet certain criteria for symptoms and exposure: a fever of at least 100.4 degrees, respiratory symptoms including cough or shortness of breath, and recent travel to a high risk area or contact with a known patient.

“Those are the people that we want to test,” said Dr. Keith Starke, Mercy’s chief quality officer, at a news conference at the testing site Friday afternoon. “We start testing everyone, the system becomes overwhelmed.”

And screening too early, before symptoms appear, can result in a false negative, he added.

State coronavirus testing has gotten faster. Mercy has been able to get results within 24 hours, Starke said. He added that the timeline can be longer through other labs.

The temporary testing site is at 15740 South Outer Forty Road in Chesterfield. It is outside of a Mercy building that offers telehealth services and does not typically see in-person patients.

Testing at the drive-thru site means patients will spend less time in crowded hospitals. It may also relieve some of the pressure felt by hospitals during the outbreak.

“It keeps it out of the emergency department,” said Fran Hixson, director of clinical quality and infection prevention for Mercy. “It really, really helps them focus on other medical needs.”

People must call Mercy’s COVID-19 Clinical Support Line at 314-251-0500 before arriving.

When patients drive up to the site, health care workers equipped in gowns, gloves, masks and goggles will greet them. The staff will verify the patient needs to be tested and use a swab to collect a sample from the patient’s nose.

Patients stay in the car the entire time, and the whole process will likely take about five minutes.

“It will truly be a drive-thru,” Hixson said.

The swabs are sent to state or private labs, and patients will receive a call with test results.

Mercy has set up temporary treatment facilities in the past, but this is its first drive-thru testing site. The organization plans to open more across Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.

Shacham said mobile care is a “go-to” strategy in health care. It’s a useful tool for bringing care to populations who need it, and not just for emergencies. For example, mammogram vans and mobile sexually transmitted infections testing sites are frequently used to increase access for communities with higher risks and less health care coverage.

SSM Health also announced new measures Friday. At 5 p.m. it launched free “virtual visits” for anyone experiencing symptoms of coronavirus, or who has been exposed to it. Residents of Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma and Wisconsin are eligible, regardless of insurance, and they do not have to be current SSM Health patients.

The new program is an extension of SSM Health’s virtual visits program, a web-based service that launched in summer 2019 to address nonurgent medical conditions.

The COVID-19 virtual visits begin with a series of questions about symptoms and exposure. If necessary, the patient will be connected after the visit with an SSM Health Medical Group provider. If testing is recommended, patients will be sent to the nearest SSM Health testing facility.

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