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Hartford HealthCare's mobile testing program reaches out to community

Norwich — Getting tested for COVID-19 needn’t be the mildly torturous experience it used to be.

For one thing, you don’t need a doctor’s order. For another, they no longer have to stick a swab so far up one of your nostrils it feels like they’re trying to touch your brain. They no longer need a sample from the back of your throat, either.

“It wasn’t painful. A little discomforting, but nothing like they say on the news,” said Sarah Welch, 30, a Baltic resident who submitted to testing Thursday outside St. Vincent de Paul Place, the soup kitchen where Hartford HealthCare parked a mobile unit for much of the day.

Hartford HealthCare introduced its mobile testing program in April and now operates three of the units in the state, including the Backus Hospital-owned vehicle that’s stationed most of the week at Windham Hospital and in Plainfield. The unit's visit Thursday to St. Vincent de Paul Place was the first community outreach event of its kind, according to Nicholas Tessier, director of pharmacy for Hartford HealthCare’s eastern region.

The unit provides an eight-person staff with a base from which to operate, including internet service and printing and labeling capabilities. The actual testing takes place outside the van, where patients are swabbed while seated beneath a canopy. St. Vincent de Paul Place clients who had registered days in advance began lining up before 9 a.m. Walk-up patients also were welcome.

“All we need is a first and last name, a date of birth and a phone number,” Tessier said. “It takes three to four days to get the results, and if it’s positive for the disease, the patient gets a call and follow-up instructions on how to quarantine for 14 days.”

The unit, which sends samples to Quest Diagnostic laboratories in Massachusetts and to Jackson Labs in Connecticut, has done about 600 tests in its first two weeks of operation, less than 5% of which have been positive, Tessier said. It's prepared to do up to 100 tests a day.

In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, only those patients who exhibited symptoms of COVID-19 or who knew they had been exposed to someone with the disease could obtain a prescription for a test. Now, with the number of new cases and current hospitalizations declining, health care providers are encouraging the asymptomatic to get tested, particularly those considered especially vulnerable because of their age, health or circumstances.

Many of those who come to the mobile unit have elderly family members they’re concerned about, Tessier said.

Reducing the invasiveness of the test has made a huge difference, said Lisa Hageman, a registered nurse who serves as Hartford HealthCare’s regional director of preventive medicine and community health.

“People do ask. This is not the test that goes to the brain,” Hageman said. “We’ve made the switch from the nasopharyngeal swab to anterior swabs. The anxiety has come way down, though some people still are scared. Some are shaking.”

Anterior swabs are placed in each nostril for no more than 15 seconds. The whole thing takes a few minutes.

Welch lives with her boyfriend and two young children, and works at the Dunkin’ Donuts on Route 2 in Preston. She said she was intent on getting tested after returning home Saturday from a trip to Florida.

“They’re not doing anything down there,” she said. “They’re not wearing masks, they’re not sanitizing. I wanted to be sure I didn’t bring anything back with me. I want to take every precaution I can.”

Jillian Corbin, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul Place, said the soup kitchen has a partnership with Backus Hospital, which dispatches a medical van to the facility on a weekly basis.

“Doing the testing here made perfect sense,” she said. “Knowledge is power. People want to know what’s going on with their bodies.”

Connecticut has seen 44,347 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday evening, according to the governor's office, 168 more than on Tuesday. The state reported an additional 23 associated deaths, bringing the total to 4,120. Hospitalizations edged down by 23 from the day before, to a total of 270. The state said 315,014 tests have been reported, up 4,360 from Tuesday.

As of Wednesday evening, New London County had seen 1,068 confirmed COVID-19 cases overall, up by nine from the day before, and 63 probable cases. The county had 72 associated deaths, up by one from the day before, and 25 deaths that were suspected of being associated with the coronavirus. Eight people were hospitalized with COVID-19, the same as the day before.

On Wednesday, Gov. Ned Lamont adjusted some of his earlier emergency measures to, among other things, facilitate the Judicial Branch's efforts to resume more court business and allow Department of Motor Vehicles customers to conduct more tasks remotely to reduce the need for in-person visits to DMV branches.

As more and more services are being offered remotely during the COVID-19 crisis, the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority is urging eligible residents — those who qualify for SNAP benefits, Medicaid and other programs — to seek affordable internet and telephone services through the federal Lifeline Program. More information is available at LifelineSupport.org.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com





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