University of Virginia health and medical officials say their months-long effort to take COVID-19 testing into communities lacking access will continue throughout the winter, even as classes end and students leave for home.
Since the testing began in August, an estimated 3,500 tests have been administered to non-university community members. The testing locations focus on minorities and lower income essential workers who traditionally have less access to medical care.
The community events are separate from the university’s testing protocol for staff and faculty.
“These events are specifically for the community. Students are not allowed to participate because they have a testing program already set up specifically for them,” said Dr. Mohan Nadkarni, chief of UVa’s general medicine department and the lead for the community testing program.
“We’re focusing on communities that often don’t have access to health care and are working jobs that don’t provide paid time off,” he said. “We also provide information about organizations in the community that can provide free food or help with bills, if needed.”
The UVa program is in tandem with one set up by the Thomas Jefferson Health District to provide testing for rural communities. Both testing programs will continue through the winter.
“We are definitely going to be here and, in fact, are increasing our testing after Thanksgiving and leading to the holidays as people spend more time together indoors,” said Kathryn Goodman, district spokeswoman. “We had nine testing events in October and we’re planning for 14 in November.”
“I think we need to keep the testing going until a vaccine comes and is widely distributed,” said Dr. Craig Kent, executive vice president for health affairs at the university. “We’re far from done with this virus.”
UVa currently tests on Mondays at the Church of the Incarnation Catholic Church in Albemarle County and on Tuesdays at Mount Zion First African Baptist Church in Charlottesville. University volunteers also conduct tests on Wednesdays and Thursdays at various locations.
The health department focuses on providing tests in rural areas of Albemarle County and in Louisa, Greene, Fluvanna and Nelson counties. Locations and dates for upcoming events can be found on the Thomas Jefferson Health District website.
Both organizations provide drive-through testing, including registration of those being tested, which allows medical personnel to contact those tested to give them results. Both also provide information on where to find food, financial assistance and other programs available to them as well as information on isolating and quarantine.
About 100 tests are usually performed at the events and test results are usually returned in 48 to 72 hours.
Goodman said splitting the area between the agencies allows more people to access the tests.
“We want to go to the rural areas so those people don’t need to drive an hour or so into the city to get a test,” she said. “We look at our data to see if there are areas that need testing and we go to areas that don’t have tests readily available.”
“It’s really been a great partnership with the health district,” said Kent. “We have similar missions and they have focused on doing the testing outside of Charlottesville and we focus on testing inside Charlottesville.”
Nadkarni said supplies of tests have improved since earlier this spring and summer and that the specific tests being used take about two three days for results to return. There are very few false readings in the test, he said.
Those about to travel or who serve as caregivers to others in homes, also take advantage of the testing events, Nadkarni said.
“These are among the most accurate tests available,” he said. “We try to focus getting the tests for those who are symptomatic or may have been in contact with COVID patients as well as those at high-risk. Those are people with chronic illnesses like diabetes. We highly recommend people who are immunosuppressed get the tests.”
COVID tests have become more available to the public with some urgent care centers, drug stores and primary care physician offices offering them. They are usually reserved for those with possible symptoms, exposure or at high-risk.
The tests cost in the neighborhood of $125, depending on who is administering the test, whether it’s covered by insurance and from where it is purchased.
“That’s not a lot of money for many people but for a lot of people, that’s a prohibitive cost,” Nadkarni said. “That could be the difference between buying food or paying rent and getting a test.”
Kent said that testing has been controversial across the country, especially as early efforts proved ineffective and assumptions about the virus turned out to be incorrect.
“In the beginning, we didn’t really understand the virus at all and there was little information available to us so the medical community had to make assumptions,” he said. “We’ve learned a lot since then and we’ve really learned that we need to do a lot of testing. We should test as many people as possible.”
Those who test positive for COVID are advised on how to self-isolate and where to get treatment as well as financial support, if needed.
“It’s important because the more testing we do, the more we’re likely to find COVID cases and the more cases we find, the more we can get them to isolate and prevent other cases,” Kent said. “It’s one way to stop the disease.”
Officials said anyone with COVID-like symptoms should be tested. Those who work around a lot of other people on a regular basis and anyone who has been near someone testing positive should get a test.
“It’s hard sometimes because the first symptoms are so much like the flu or colds,” Goodman said. “If you haven’t seen anyone for a month and you don’t go out very often and work at home and suddenly you get symptoms, you have to consider whether it’s allergies. The same symptoms for someone working everyday around others could mean something else.”
Kent said UVa and the health district are concerned with public health and safety and that’s the reason for taking the tests to the streets.
“People are worried. They’re worried about their safety and the safety of others and our interests are in their safety,” he said. “We’re trying to meet the demand and, if the demand increases, we’ll increase our efforts.”