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300 line up for first day of testing

Hundreds of area residents — some waiting for hours — turned out for the first day of the state’s temporary coronavirus test site at the Blair County Convention Center on Sunday.

Cars began lining up 45 minutes early and were soon backed onto Convention Center Boulevard in both directions. The waiting time for service stretched to as long as four hours — compared to a normal wait time of 12 to 25 minutes for the Department of Health’s temporary testing sites.

More than 300 people were on scene before noon, leading site contractor AMI Expeditionary Healthcare to obtain permission from the department to exceed its daily limit of 440, according to head physician Jorge Simental.

“They were slammed,” said Convention Center spokeswoman Tara Saltzburg in mid-afternoon, a few hours after the wait time had shrunk to about two hours.

While all patients were expected to arrive by vehicle to the facility, AMI was providing both in-car and indoor test sampling, according to Simental and Saltzburg.

All cars were directed to the back of the Convention Center building, at which point vehicles with patients who wanted in-car service were separated from vehicles of those who wanted to go indoors.

AMI employees registered the in-car patients at one station and swabbed them at another, Saltzburg said.

Patients who wanted indoor service parked in the garage, then walked across a bridge to the lower level entrance in the rear of the building, where they could wait outside on chairs set 6 feet apart to be called in for swabbing, the officials said.

Normally, 95 percent of patients opt for drive-thru service, Saltzburg was told.

Drive-thru testing is preferred, she said.

But about 25 percent of the early patients Sunday went indoors, according to information supplied by Simental.

Once a patient’s turn arrives, service takes eight to 10 minutes, the officials indicated.

The Convention Center blocked off about 2,500 square feet on the lower level to handle the indoor patients, removing “soft” furniture to prevent contamination and closing access to the rest of the property, including a nearby restroom, according to Saltzburg.

The indoor patients left the same way they came, and never went upstairs, she said.

“Our biggest concern was keeping the guests coming to our facility safe,” Saltzburg said.

Some people involved in meetings to be held at the facility this week asked about safety, but there weren’t any cancellations as of Sunday afternoon, she said.

The 440-patient-per-day limit is set by the state because of its program, Simental said.

Testing is free to patients.

They are asked to show insurance cards, but it’s not mandatory, Simental said.

Insurers must pay for COVID-19 tests for those they insure, while the state pays for ones who don’t show a card, Simental said.

Patients don’t need to have symptoms to be tested at the site.

The employees manning the drive-thru line were prepared to work in Sunday’s bad weather, having tents and raincoats, Simental said.

“We’re here for the community,” he said.

The site will accept patients from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. today, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, then Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, Nov. 24.

Patients should wear a mask and bring identification, as well as an insurance card, if they have one, according to Saltzburg.

Patients must be at least 3 years old.

Patients will be phoned with positive results within 48 hours.

Patients will be emailed with negative results within three or four days.

AMI closed early Sunday to protect the fragile tents from the wind, but serviced all the patients who were waiting at the time, Saltzburg said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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