Why Tampa Bay Testing for Coronavirus is Vital

March 29, 2020
two men in PPE testing COVID samples


This is an editorial piece featured in the Tampa Bay Times on March 29, 2020 

BayCare and its partners are ramping up testing to help isolate patients and flatten the curve, CEO Tommy Inzina writes.

One morning earlier this month at seven parking lots across West Central Florida, BayCare health care workers donned gowns, gloves and masks and, with a box of medical-grade swabs, began the quest to determine exactly how bad the COVID-19 pandemic was here.

These were team members who normally staffed BayCare Urgent Care centers or worked in laboratories. But starting March 18, BayCare converted some facilities’ parking lots into drive-thru COVID-19 test collection sites in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Polk counties.

The goals of the sites are simple, even as they have proven somewhat elusive for us and the partners who have joined us on the quest: 1. Raise awareness around the need for suspected COVID-19 patients to isolate. 2. Identify positive patients so that their loved ones and close associates could isolate.

The public health tenet is sound. As we have seen internationally, if a community can curtail the transmission rate of an infectious disease – a strategy popularly called “flattening the curve” -- it can ultimately mitigate death rates. By suppressing infections, fewer people get sick and our community’s hospitals will have a better chance of providing quality care to all patients. That has implications for those who will become acutely ill with COVID-19, but it also improves care for everyone else who needs a hospital bed in coming weeks and months, be it pregnant mothers or heart attack victims.

Drive-thru test collection has its advantages. Patients never leave their cars, providing a buffer against infection spread. Health care workers do not have to disinfect an examination room after each patient. They only need to change out their gloves, conserving personal protection equipment at a moment when supply lines are tight.

Many colleagues locally appreciate the model and the ambition. Just this past week, Hillsborough County and City of Tampa governments worked with BayCare, Tampa General Hospital, AdventHealth and HCA-West Florida Division to open a drive-thru test collection center at Raymond James Stadium. In three days, 900 people had test specimens taken using swabs provided by the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

Those tests come on top of more than 8,600 screenings for COVID-19 that BayCare has performed at its drive-thru sites this month, including testing more than 5,250 individuals.

Yet, for all the success, there have been missed opportunities and growing frustration that we have not yet figured out a way to do broad-based testing in Tampa Bay or Florida. The stadium site closed on Friday because medical supplies could not be found to continue, but later in the day the state confirmed more supplies are on the way.

That same unpredictable supply chain has led BayCare to adjust its number of test collection sites and hours of operations, sometimes day to day. We aren’t doing drive-thru testing this weekend, for example, but anticipate having the resources to operate sites for five days in the coming week, starting Monday.

Another aggravating hurdle in our quest: The nation’s laboratories can’t keep up with the demand for COVID-19 test processing. BayCare, which is largely using private laboratories to run its patients’ tests, has seen waiting times for results grow almost daily, from four days to more than a week. Responsible patients who have practiced self-isolation are understandably impatient for their results.

Nonetheless, come Monday, BayCare team members will be back in the parking lots on the front lines to start another week of testing. We are still looking for opportunities to expand capacity, ideally with government or other partners, as we know we have competing priorities.

Like all our health care colleagues in the community and across the country, we balance this work against the priority of taking care of our acute patients. For now, our quest continues. The more we can do now to interrupt the spread of this virus and encourage individuals to responsibly quarantine to avoid infecting others, the better off our community and each of us will be.

Tommy Inzina is president and CEO of BayCare Health System, a not-for-profit health care system that includes 15 hospitals and hundreds of other locations throughout the Tampa Bay and central Florida regions.

Read Inzina's column on the Tampa Bay Times here


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