Photo by Andrew Ryan Smith, U.S. Army National Guard
Friday, April 17, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

CommUnityCare opens new drive-thru testing sites

After indefinitely closing seven CommUnityCare clinics earlier this month, the community healthcare provider opened its second drive-thru Covid-19 testing center to serve eastern Travis County. CommUnityCare is also reopening two of its clinics in the Eastern Crescent.

April 16 was the first day of operation for the Central Health drive-thru testing site at the Del Valle Southeast Metropolitan Park. Jaeson Fournier, the CEO of CommUnityCare, told the Central Health Board of Managers at an emergency meeting on Thursday that on the inaugural day of testing, 20 individuals arrived for screening, 10 of whom were tested.

The testing site will open again next Thursday and offer testing between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. On the other weekdays, the testing site will rotate its location through sites in eastern Travis County. The site will open in Dove Springs on Monday; in the Austin’s Colony neighborhood on Tuesday; at a school campus in Manor on Wednesday; and at Barbara Jordan Elementary School in Colony Park on Friday.

Fournier told board managers that CommUnityCare is still finalizing some of the exact locations but that testing will be available every day next week.

He explained that the testing sites are prioritizing those who have come into direct contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19 as well as individuals over the age of 60 and with preexisting conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart disease and asthma. However, he clarified that “we’re able to talk to anyone who calls a hotline.” Individuals who are not patients of CommUnityCare are encouraged to call the clinic hotline at (512) 978-8775 or to come to a drive-thru for screening.

Although any member of the Austin community is welcome, he said the limited numbers of test kits restrict the number of people CommUnityCare can test on any given day. Since mid-March, CommUnityCare has operated a drive-thru testing site in the Hancock Center, on the corner of 41st Street and Interstate 35. Last Saturday, Fournier said staff nearly exhausted their testing capabilities and almost had to close the site.

As of April 15, health care providers saw 1,928 people at the Hancock testing site. Of that total, 1,496 individuals were screened and 1,141 received tests.

While the community clinic is using its testing kits judiciously, Fournier said it is doing so effectively. The positive rate for testing done by CommUnityCare is 15 percent.

Results from the tests are also coming back more quickly. Processing for tests takes from 24 hours to five days, and any individual who receives a positive test is notified within 24 hours or less.

While test kits remain at a premium, personal protective equipment is more readily available to clinicians. “We’ve been able to stabilize our PPE,” Fournier said. This stabilization is due in part to the prior closure of smaller community clinics to allow for consolidation as well as the push to use telehealth for the entire patient population.

“We’re at about 70 percent of our total visits now which are being conducted telephonically,” said Dr. Alan Schalscha, CommUnityCare’s chief medical officer. Central Health expects the transition to telehealth to continue after the coronavirus pandemic subsides. However, some of the previously closed sites are reopening to the community. CommUnityCare’s Hornsby Bend Health Center in eastern Travis County reopened on April 15, and the Del Valle clinic will open on April 20.

As the clinics resume operations and the new drive-thru site begins conducting testing, Central Health will begin to collect data on patient demographics that test positive for Covid-19. According to Austin Public Health data presented by Sarita Clark-Leach, director of analytics and reporting at CommUnityCare, 40 percent of confirmed Covid-19 cases are Hispanic individuals. The top five ZIP codes with the highest increases in positive diagnoses are in areas that Central Health targets to provide health care.

“We want to look at how much that rate is increasing,” said Clark-Leach, adding the caveat that “these number increases could be due to an increase in testing that confirms more of the cases, rather than an increase in spread.”

To continue to address the needs of communities of color and low-income populations, the Central Health Board of Managers will meet weekly until its operations stabilize.

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