Sampling center opens: UPMC dedicates facility to collecting COVID-19 specimens

Walk-ins will not be accepted; patients must be referred

Van Zandt VA Medical Center Police Officer Peter Maines asks a driver a series of screening questions regarding coronavirus before drivers are able to exit their vehicle on the first day of prescreening on Tuesday. Asking the screening questions before arrivals exit their vehicles should reduce the potential for infection spread, as well as reduce the hassle of having to answer the same questions repeatedly. UPMC Altoona announced Tuesday that it has established a COVID-19 collection site at the former Keystone Family Medical Practice location along Pleasant Valley Boulevard, not far from the Van Zandt VA Medical Center. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

Altoona now has its own dedicated COVID-19 specimen collection site — a development that should help health care providers deal more knowledgeably with the pandemic as it makes its way inevitably to Blair County.

Until now, UPMC Altoona has obtained testing samples from only a handful of patients here — those in the emergency department or those who had been admitted — using “negative pressure” rooms in the hospital, according to UPMC spokeswoman Danielle Sampsell.

On Tuesday, UPMC opened a separate, single-purpose facility in a former primary care office on the 2600 block of Pleasant Valley Boulevard and conducted a “trial day,” testing six patients — a number the organization plans to increase as the days go by, Sampsell said.

Along with social-distance “mitigation” and the gearing up of treatment facilities, expansion of testing is one of the key tactics for fighting the pandemic, according to State Secretary of Health Rachel Levine.

Operating in the afternoons only, the specimen collection facility will test 10 patients today and 12 each on Thursday and Friday, said Sampsell.

Next week, there may be additional hours based on demand, and the following week, the site will begin operating from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. seven days a week, according to Sampsell.

Workers have prepared the site by creating negative ventilation — which prevents the escape of pathogens — in three former examination rooms, now sample collection rooms, Sampsell said.

Patients need a doctor’s order to get tested, Sampsell said.

Those orders in turn need to be approved by the UPMC Altoona Command Center Triage Team, Sampsell said.

If the team approves, the patient — or the doctor on behalf of the patient — is connected immediately to a call center to schedule an appointment.

The visit to the site takes place within 24 hours, or even on the same day, Sampsell said.

No walk-ins are accepted at the site, Sampsell said.

Any doctor in the UPMC Altoona-UPMC Bedford Memorial region — not just UPMC doctors — can order a test, Sampsell said.

At the sampling site, patients exit their vehicles one at a time, are given a mask and gloves before entering the building, and are taken immediately to one of the collection rooms. They are there less than five minutes, and the only time they don’t wear a mask is when samples are being collected, Sampsell said.

Sampling involves the insertion of a long, Q-tip-like device through the nose and into the throat, officials have said previously.

Patients do not cross paths with one another, according to Sampsell.

After samples are taken, patients are sent home to await results in self-quarantine.

Samples are sent either to UPMC’s testing site in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh or the organization’s partner commercial lab, Quest.

Easton Hospital in Northhampton County has said it may need to close if it doesn’t get $40 million from the state, according to statements made on a conference call Tuesday hosted by the Hospital and Healthsystems Association of Pennsylvania.

Other hospitals might also need to close if the General Assembly and governor’s office don’t come up with a financial package to help defray the loss of revenue due to cancellation of lucrative elective surgeries, the added cost of overtime, the hiring of additional staff, the acquisition of additional supplies and equipment, the establishment of child care facilities and extra housing for new workers and other financial burdens imposed by preparations for and reactions to the crisis, according to HAP CEO Andy Carter.

The pandemic has the potential for creating “unimaginable fiscal consequences,” he said.

He cited an official in a hospital in Brooklyn, where the pandemic is “a few weeks ahead of us,” who said his staff costs have risen by $34 million a month.

Closures could happen in the “worst case — or even the middle case (scenarios),” he said. And closures in the midst of the pandemic would be “devastating,” he said.

Someone on the conference call suggested electives earn hospitals up to 80 percent of their revenue.

Some Pennsylvania hospitals “already operate on a razor’s edge,” and are particularly vulnerable, HAP spokeswoman Rachel Moore said.

A third of the association’s member hospitals lose money on operations in any given year, although there are “pockets of financial stability and strength,” at least in normal times, according to Carter. “But these aren’t normal times,” he said.

UPMC didn’t respond to a request for comment Tuesday on whether it sees COVID-19 as a financial threat.

According to Carter, the hospital association wants to work with state lawmakers on the amount of the proposed funding package.

“We want to collaborate,” he said.

But it would be an “extraordinary” amount to match the size of the possible patient surge, he said.

Washington state has 60 percent of Pennsylvania’s population and its hospitals received a $200 million infusion, Carter said.

The hospitals would draw on the fund only as needed, he said. The association is also hopeful of special federal assistance, which would offset some of the need for state help, Carter said.

The hospitals wouldn’t “double-dip” if the federal funding becomes available, he said.

The association is also calling for “regulatory relief,” Carter said. That includes relaxation of licensure requirements and of rules around such matters as establishment of child care facilities, he said.

Meanwhile, the association is helping hospitals move supplies from areas where there is a current surplus to areas where they’re needed, Carter said.

Needed most are ventilators, hospital beds and personal protective equipment like masks.

Hospitals are “burning through” items like masks, Carter said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.


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