GREENPORT — More than 80 Twin County residents were tested for COVID-19 on Friday at the first of a series of planned clinics to determine how widespread the virus is in the region.
Columbia Memorial Hospital staff members and several volunteers conducted diagnostic testing in the parking lot of Columbia-Greene Community College. The clinic was open to the public by appointment only.
Columbia County Health Department Director Jack Mabb called the clinic a success and said the county will continue to make diagnostic testing available to residents.
“I don’t see this changing until there is a vaccine,” Mabb said, noting that his staff is prepared to battle COVID-19 until the end of 2020 if necessary.
Pre-registered Twin County residents entering the drive-thru clinic Friday first passed through several security checkpoints, where they were required to present a testing PIN number and photo identification through the car window.
Once verified by Department of Health staff, the individuals to be tested drove to a tent at the opposite end of the parking lot, where they were met by medical personnel wearing full PPE. Once swabbed, they were handed instructions for self-quarantining until receiving results by phone. The whole process took less than five minutes.
COVID-19 testing is conducted by inserting a 6-inch swab into the nasopharynx and holding it there for 5 to 10 seconds, said Melissa Heermans, a physician’s assistant who works in the emergency room at Columbia Memorial Hospital. The nasopharynx is at the back of a person’s nasal cavity, above the soft palate.
Heermans conducted COVID-19 tests at Friday’s clinic, taking turns with the other assembled clinicians. She also taught several volunteers how to swab, including Greg Fox, Greenport Rescue Squad’s advanced life-support coordinator, who volunteered to serve at the clinic.
Heermans, who was previously named Physician Assistant of the Year by the Regional Emergency Medical Organization, said she has felt protected with adequate PPE since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic more than two months ago.
Despite the unusual circumstances, she said treating patients is what she signed up for when she joined the medical field.
“I don’t see us as heroes,” Heermans said. “This is our job. We are here to take care of people.”
Most residents who signed up for the clinic either had symptoms or had been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19, said Elizabeth Galle, director of patient services at the Columbia County Department of Health. The youngest individual tested was 18 months old and men and women were tested in equal measure, she said.
Only 42 residents registered for testing of Tuesday morning, but by late Thursday nearly all slots had been taken. The clinic was limited to 100 people to avoid overwhelming the Wadsworth Center in Albany, where the tests will be analyzed, Mabb said.
“Wadsworth is trying to stay above water,” said Victoria McGahan, a public health educator for Columbia County. “They only have a certain capacity.”
The Columbia County Health Department plans to hold the next testing clinic in Hudson to reach people who may not have access to a car. Non-symptomatic individuals will be invited to get tested then as well, Mabb said.
Mabb acknowledged that Columbia County was late to begin diagnostic testing, which hampered public-health officials’ ability to determine exactly how many people have been infected.
“Now the public wants antibody testing,” he said. “People want to know if that nasty flu they had in January was [COVID-19].”
Columbia County is committed to conducting antibody testing, Mabb said, adding that Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Chuck Kaiser has already begun researching antibody testing kits.
A total of 2,029 Columbia County residents and 1,482 Greene County residents have been tested for COVID-19 since testing began in March. The majority of those individuals were tested at clinics in Albany and Ulster counties, Mabb said.
Columbia County has had a total of 317 positive cases of COVID-19 and Greene County has had a total of 220 positive cases, according to the Columbia County and Greene County health department websites.