FAIRFIELD — Jefferson County Health Center CEO Bryan Hunger has announced that the health center will provide daily updates on the number of COVID-19 tests conducted in the county, and the number of both positive and negative results.
The announcement comes fresh on the heels of the county reporting its first positive case of COVID-19, which was reported Thursday, April 2.
On the day before the positive case was announced, JCHC reported on its website that 65 individuals had been tested, with 41 testing negative and 23 with a test result still pending. Hunger said the health center sends its tests to two different reference labs. The state hygienic lab in Iowa City returns test results in 24-48 hours, while a national reference lab can take 5-7 days.
Hunger said the health center has been following the Iowa Department of Public Health’s guidelines as far as who can receive a test, since the tests are limited. In short, tests are limited to those with symptoms of a respiratory illness plus some aggravating factor such as being hospitalized, being over 60 years of age, living in a congregate setting, or performing an essential service such as being a health care worker or first responder.
“It’s true that if you want a test but you don’t fit the criteria, you’re not going to get a test,” Hunger said. “That’s because of a lack of testing kits at the state level and nationally. We’re trying to be responsible by only giving the tests to those at risk.”
When Hunger spoke to The Union on April 1, the health center had 90 test kits, but Hunger was quick to add that that number changes by the hour. The number of people who can get tested changes daily, too. For instance, on March 31, the health center tested between 15-17 people.
The number of test kits is increasing each day as production ramps up. However, Hunger said that the bulk of them are going to hot spots where the virus has exploded, in cities such as New York, where there have been 83,000 confirmed cases and 1,940 deaths as of April 2.
“The tests are going mostly to big cities, which is both a blessing and a curse,” Hunger said. “It means the level of infection is not as high here, but it also means it will be awhile before we get enhanced testing.”
Hunger said the health center has devised a plan to perform COVID-19 tests in-house so it won’t have to send them to a lab. Instead of having to wait days for a result, the health center will know it in about an hour.
“We’re on a waiting list to get the equipment to do that,” Hunger said. “But just because we have the ability doesn’t mean we’ll have the kits. Right now, the number of kits is the limiting factor.”
Swabbing for the virus
Before testing a patient for COVID-19, a health center staff member speaks to the patient over the phone to talk about their symptoms and whether they qualify for a test. Only after establishing that the person meets the criteria are they invited to the health center for a test, which involves a nasal swab that reaches the back of the throat.
When a patient is admitted for testing, health center staff will be wearing gloves, a mask and a face shield to protect themselves from contracting the virus in case the patient is a carrier. Hunger said the health center has this kind of personal protective equipment on hand, though “not as much as we want.” He said there is a nationwide shortage of many of these items, and that’s forcing the health center to do a “little bit of rationing.”
Fortunately, local businesses and civic groups have stepped forward to make fabric masks for the staff to help offset the shortages.
“That helps us conserve the masks we have in inventory,” Hunger said. “Sky Factory has offered to make us an aerosol box, which is like a glass box we can put over the head of the patient to contain their spray when we are treating them. That would be used if the patient was really sick.”
Hunger said other businesses have donated goggles and N95 masks.
“We really appreciate all the support,” he said.
For those interested in donating fabric masks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has posted on its website the best pattern to use in making the mask.
“The CDC website goes into how to make double layers,” Hunger said. “That’s what we’re looking for to maximize protection.”
Even before the first case of COVID-19 was announced in the county, JCHC had been taking preventive steps to stop the spread of the virus. This included restricting visitors so that each patient in the hospital could see only one visitor per day.
“If you don’t need to be here, don’t come,” Hunger said.
The health center screens all staffers before they can work. If they’ve traveled in the past couple of weeks, they have to go through a quarantine process and wear a mask at work for 14 days to make sure they’re not contagious.
The coronavirus outbreak has not stopped the health center from treating other patients just as it normally would. For instance, the emergency room is operating as always. The major disruption to services has been in the surgery and operating room, where the health center has canceled all elective surgeries. These would include cataracts, knee replacements, and most orthopedic surgeries.
“If it’s an emergency case, we’re still doing those,” Hunger said.