Testing demand wanes as people follow stay-at-home order

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Karen Carroll, left, and Natalya Barbarosh talk Tuesday about their experiences screening and testing people for COVID-19 at Puna Community Medical Center in Pahoa. Carroll and Barbarosh have both had good experiences helping people through this difficult time.

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Elena Cabatu, director of marketing and public affairs at Hilo Medical Center, watches as Lauri Redus, regional imaging administrator at HMC, fixes the sign outside the COVID-19 screening and testing center Tuesday at Puna Community Medical Center in Pahoa. Anyone can come into the center without an appointment to get screened or tested for COVID-19.

It was quiet Tuesday morning at the Puna Community Medical Center.

Wearing protective gowns over their green scrubs and masks at-the-ready around their necks, Karen Carroll, an advanced practice registered nurse, and Natalya Barbarosh, a certified clinical medical assistant, were prepped to screen and, if necessary, test incoming patients for COVID-19.

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The Pahoa facility — which is part a network of clinics in the East Hawaii Region of the Hawaii Health Systems Corp., which also includes Hilo Medical Center, Ka‘u Hospital and Hale Ho‘ola Hamakua — is in its second week of offering COVID-19 screening and testing in the rural East Hawaii district.

At this site, individuals can be screened by providers to determine whether they meet the criteria for COVID-19 testing.

Twenty people were tested March 23-27. Carroll said she’s received the results back for every day except Friday, all of which were negative.

“Yesterday really slowed down,” she said of the demand for tests. “Today we’ve only seen two.”

Carroll thinks people are listening to the state’s stay-at-home mandate.

As a provider working during the ongoing pandemic, Carroll said she’s concerned about exposure, “but we’re in health care because we want to help people. We can’t change that just because this happened in our lifetime. We just have to be optimistic and do everything I’m telling my patients (to do) … .”

Carroll normally works at the East Hawaii Health Clinic in Hilo but was a longtime emergency room nurse.

“I’m happier doing this than being in the ER, wearing this full (protective gear) for 12 hours.”

The testing capability is needed in Puna.

“I guess the Puna community feels like they miss out on a lot of things, so this was to support the community,” said Carroll.

“We set it up out here because we know it can be a hardship for (Puna residents) to come all the way up to Hilo Medical Center, and also the access to primary care is less out here than it is in town,” HMC spokeswoman Elena Cabatu said. “So we brought the access to screening and testing to the people.”

Carroll said patients are “super appreciative” for the service — even those who are screened but not tested.

“I look at them,” she said. “Their doctors can say ‘you don’t meet the criteria,’ but they’re on the phone. They’re not looking at them. So I’m looking at their ears, listening to them, assessing their lymph nodes, and so that definitely gives them peace of mind that I’ve looked at them … .”

COVID-19 testing is continuing elsewhere on Hawaii Island, and at these sites, individuals don’t have to leave their vehicles.

More than 300 people have been tested at Hilo Medical Center’s drive-through testing site since it opened on March 17. Tests done there, however, must be ordered by a physician.

Some 162 people were tested the first week, 133 the second and 14 so far this week, according to information on the hospital’s website.

Cabatu said demand is starting to wane as more people are staying at home.

Hospital administrators said there have been no positive results reported from the drive-through.

Lynn Scully, a spokeswoman for Queen’s North Hawaii Community Hospital in Waimea, said drive-through screenings are being offered from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday at the hospital.

NHCH has been offering the testing for about two weeks, she said. While numbers have declined since testing first began, “they are kind of steady now.”

According to Scully, the hospital has tested around 250 individuals, but she estimates that nearly twice as many have been screened. Individuals have come from all over the island.

She couldn’t comment on whether there have been any positive results from the drive-through testing effort.

Scully also emphasized that seeking medical care is excluded from the state’s stay-at-home order, and said it’s “OK to leave home if they’re coming to get medical care like this.”

While physician orders are not required at the NHCH site, individuals will be screened for symptoms to see if the test is warranted.

One-day drive-through screening clinics in Kona and Hilo, which were held Saturday and Sunday in those communities, respectively, enabled hundreds of people to be tested.

“Things went very smoothly in both locations,” said Garrett Kim, Hawaii Fire Department’s representative to the county’s COVID-19 task force.

According to Kim, about 300 people were screened and 168 tested in Kona on Saturday, while 360 individuals were screened and 70 tested in Hilo on Sunday.

The numbers in Kona, however, were “skewed” because a number of first responders, who have to meet a lower testing threshold than the general public, came through and were tested, he said.

The weekend’s efforts marked the second and third such clinics, which were provided by Premier Medical Group and other health care organizations, with the support of the county’s task force.

The first clinic, held March 23 in Kona, drew more than 1,600 people, nearly 300 of whom were tested, West Hawaii Today reported.

Kim said the decline in the number of visitors to the subsequent clinics was anticipated because individuals who were “really anxious and overly concerned” made it to the first clinic.

Additional drive-through clinics are planned from 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday at the Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium in Hilo, and from 8 a.m.-noon Mondays and Thursday as the Keauhou Shopping Center in Kona for the foreseeable future.

Kim said these are free testing clinics.

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“We really encourage people to come down and take advantage of this weekly opportunity.”

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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