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Missoula to open drive-thru COVID test center; medical referral required

Healthcare workers brief the media on Monday, April 6, 2020, as they plan to open a drive-thru test center at the Missoula County Fairgrounds. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

With enough material to swab an estimated 200 people for the COVID-19 virus, local health officials will open a drive-thru test center on Tuesday, though it will be reserved for those with a medical referral and fall into two high-risk categories set by the CDC.

But the Missoula City-County Health Department said Monday that it’s expecting a larger shipment of swabs and tubes in the days ahead, allowing it expand testing to a slightly wider population.

“We are actually hoping by the end of this week to get in a significantly bigger supply,” said Cindy Farr, a healthcare provider leading the local response to the pandemic. “Over the course of this pandemic, we’re hoping to test thousands of people.”

Missoula County reported a new case of the virus during Monday’s press briefing, bringing the total number of cases to 24. National healthcare leaders, including those used to inform President Donald Trump, believe Montana will peak in late April.

But other models differ, showing a peak as late as mid-May. Expanding the county’s ability to test patients will help determine what steps are taken between now and then.

“Over the weekend, we did a soft opening on a screening and testing center for COVID-19,” said Missoula Mayor John Engen. “Our hope as we move forward is to expand that testing. As of this morning, tests are still limited. Those kits aren’t raining down on us.”

The drive-thru center will open at the Missoula County Fairgrounds, though the cost of the facility remains unknown. Farr said the CDC and other federal programs will likely reimburse any costs incurred by the county.

Over the next week, Farr said, the center will only accept patients referred by a medical expert, and those individuals must fall into what the CDC has deemed Priority 1 and 2 categories. Those include healthcare and facility workers, patients in long-term care, adults over the age of 65, or others of any age with underlying health conditions.

All must be showing symptoms to be tested.

Cindy Farr, right, head of the local pandemic response, and Dr. Robert Stenger, the chief physician with the City-County Health Board, brief the media on the pace of testing on Monday, April 6, 2020. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“We do anticipate that our supplies are going to start coming in at a much more normal rate, and we’ll be able to get our hands on the supplies we need,” said Farr. “As our supplies increase, our ability to test others who fall into the other priority areas will also increase.”

While the drive-thru test center will expand the county’s ability to conduct more tests, Farr said it won’t be enough to get a full accounting of the virus and its reach in the community.

Health officials said last week they are now seeing signs of community spread, and the number of those infected will continue to rise. Missoula has reported one death thus far, and six have died across the state.

“As we start to see more community spread and more cases, I believe we are going to need to be able to test more people. This gives us an additional avenue to test more people.”

As testing increases, so too will the number of confirmed cases. With the anticipated surge in cases anywhere from a week to more than a month away, hospitals are reserving beds to handle an equal surge in patients.

Both Providence St. Patrick Hospital and Community Medical Center have already closed certain access points and are prohibiting most visitors. Both facilities also have ended elective surgeries to preserve personal protective equipment.

“About three weeks ago, we stopped all elective cases in preparation for a surge,” said Joyce Dombrouski, chief executive at St. Pats. She added that the hospital is low on beds and ICU units, but holding steady.

“At this time we are not at the moment overrun with COVID patients or any other patients, and I think that’s where the community would like us to be in preparation for the surge we may be experiencing in the next couple weeks,” she said.

Those who believe they should be tested are asked to call 258-INFO. Those who are not scheduled to access the test center will be turned away, as will anyone who is scheduled but is ill.

“We are really just doing testing. We are not set up to see people who are sick,” said Dr. Robert Stenger, the lead physician on the City-County Health Board.

“There will be some physicians out on site as part of the testing team, but their roll will be to support the team out there and if someone does show up needing more medical attention, to direct them to the right places to get that.”