Dr. Bonnie Simmons has seen a lot as an emergency room doctor, but she never expected to witness a global pandemic. Simmons, Medical Director of Urgent Care at Optum ProHEALTH Care in New York City, never dreamed she’d suit up in hazmat gear and work out of a parking lot.
But that’s exactly what she and her colleagues are doing as they serve residents at the Optum mobile COVID-19 testing sites and develop new ways to test more people.
COVID-19 is forcing Simmons, and health care professionals all over New York and New Jersey, to rethink how they do their work. Simmons told TIME, “I’ve been doing emergency medicine my entire life, for almost 30 years. In my career, I didn’t think I’d have that many firsts. But this is new terrain.”
New terrain and hard work, even for seasoned ER veterans. “Those N95 masks make breathing difficult,” Simmons added. “People can’t hear you as well, so you speak loud. And after several hours of yelling through the mask for patients to hear, that’s exhausting.”
New York and New Jersey are two COVID-19 hot spots — regions that are experiencing an extremely high number of confirmed COVID-19 cases.
When the outbreak began in New Jersey, the Optum Riverside Medical Group opened the state’s very first mobile testing centers. Since Riverside wanted to make sure people weren’t driving up uninvited, clear messaging around the COVID-19 sites was crucial.
The group’s communications team got the word out, so patients know they have to call before heading to a mobile testing site. “They do an extensive screening with medical personnel over the phone to see if the patients meet the criteria to get the swab for COVID-19,” explained Riverside CEO Dr. Iyad Baker in an interview with New Jersey News Network.
Using a new testing protocol, developed by OptumCare clinicians in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to reduce health worker exposure to the virus and help preserve valuable protective gear, testing center teams help patients swab their noses for both COVID-19 and the seasonal flu. While the flu results come back in minutes, answers on COVID-19 take as much as four days. Until patients get a call about their tests, they’re expected to self-quarantine at home.
Latest innovation—walk-up sites test for deadly virus
ProHEALTH has seven testing stations up and running in New York, including four drive-thru sites. That’s great for people who drive, but what if you don’t have a car? It turns out the provider has that covered, too.
As more people seek testing, “we’ve become even more innovative,” ProHEALTH CEO Dr. Zeyad Baker recently told Fox News’ Fox and Friends.
Zayed said ProHEALTH has established three “walk-up” testing sites at some of its urgent care centers to serve people in communities where there are more pedestrians than cars.
A lot of the patients coming in for testing are extremely worried. Some fear they’ve made loved ones sick at birthday parties and extended family events. In the past, doctors and technicians may have reassuringly patted a patient’s arm. They can’t do that anymore, since physical contact is dangerous in the age of COVID-19.
Whether the patient is in a car or on foot, the goal at the COVID-19 test centers is to get answers.
“Testing is critical,” adds Optum ProHEALTH’s Baker. “Is the disease on an upswing? Is it stabilizing? Is it declining? Are the measures we’re taking working or not? Testing is the only way for us to have that insight and flatten the curve.”