Tulare County, hospital rapidly increase testing capacity

Board of Supervisors approve multi-million dollar deal to have Kaweah Delta do rapid testing at facilities in Visalia, Exeter, Dinuba and Lindsay

TULARE COUNTY – The rules for reopening schools and the economy in California change rapidly, so it makes sense that COVID-19 testing should be done rapidly to keep pace.

Unfortunately, commercial labs can still take five days or more to report test results. That can seriously affect Tulare County’s ability to accurately report its positivity rate which is based on a seven-day average with a seven-day lag. It doesn’t help matters that the state is now penalizing counties for not testing enough after directing them to pull back on testing when inventories were low. That happened last week when California artificially increased Tulare County’s case rate from 11.4 per 100,000 people to 11.7 because it had told asymptomatic residents not to get tested when supplies were scarce.

“We complied, pulled back testing for capacity issues, then we turned around and got punished for it,” said Tim Lutz, director of Health and Human Services Agency for Tulare County.

But there is some positivity on the horizon when it comes to the county’s positivity rate. On Sept. 21, the positivity rate was 7.7% and below the 8% threshold set by the state for the first time since June. The positivity rate is one of two metrics the state is using to determine if counties like Tulare can move from the purple tier for widespread infection rates into the red tier for substantial infection rates. While the names don’t sound like much of an improvement, moving into the red tier would allow schools to reopen for in-person instruction, restaurants to open indoor dining, churches can reopen with 25% capacity, retail can double their capacity to 50% and we can go back to the movies.

“If the state is adjusting our case rate, we really want to see us getting that testing out,” Lutz said. “Asymptomatic people cannot be refused a test at county sites.”

But the positivity rate only matters if the county can maintain a pace of more than 700 tests each day, meaning Tulare County needs same day testing and an efficient way to reach out to the public. Both of those are central to a contract the Board of Supervisors inked with Kaweah Delta Health Care District yesterday.

At its Sept. 29 meeting, the Board of Supervisors approved a $3 million contract with Kaweah Delta Health Care District to expand testing capacity by offering rapid testing at four locations throughout the county. A week before the meeting, Kaweah Delta announced it had opened a new COVID-19 specimen collection site in Central Visalia and begun offering rapid COVID testing to Tulare County residents in Visalia and Exeter.

“We want to significantly improve testing in Tulare County. We may see the positivity rate decrease with increased testing,” said Gary Herbst, chief executive officer of Kaweah Delta.

To improve specimen collection, Kaweah Delta moved its COVID-19 specimen collection site to a 2,000-square-foot building with six patient rooms that can accommodate indoor and outdoor testing at 1645 S. Court St. Collections were previously being conducted on a closed city block in downtown Visalia since April. “The city of Visalia allowed us to use that space for the benefit of this community and for that we will always be grateful,” Herbst said.

Last week, Kaweah Delta made the rapid testing available at its Exeter Health Clinic. In coming weeks, the rapid testing will be available at Kaweah Delta’s Dinuba and Lindsay health clinics, Sequoia Health & Wellness Centers, and Kaweah Delta Urgent Care Centers. To get tested, people can call Kaweah Delta’s free COVID-19 Screening Hotline at 559-624-4110, available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

“It allows us to do just a swab of the nostril. We no longer have to go deep up into the sinus cavity, so it’s much more comfortable for our patients and it’s a quick result test,” said Herbst, noting that the District purchased 20 analyzers in partnership with the Tulare County Health & Human Services Agency using CARES act funds. “While this test itself can be done in 15 minutes, we are expecting to run them in batches throughout the day. Our goal is to process everything same day so you get your results that evening or the next morning.”

The District first launched testing on the Quidel Sofia-2 platform, a rapid lab analyzer, at Visalia Medical Clinic in late August. The rapid COVID-19 test is available to patients of Visalia Medical Clinic and to individuals who see a provider at: QuickCare, 5400 W. Hillsdale Ave. and Sequoia Prompt Care, 1110 S. Ben Maddox Way, Ste. B, both in Visalia.

The rapid test is something physicians at the clinic wanted in place before fall, the start of cold and flu season, said Dr. Robert Allen, a family medicine physician and medical director of the clinic’s laboratory. A taskforce worked with leaders at Kaweah Delta, including Randall Kokka, Director of Laboratory Services, who was instrumental and relentless in securing the rapid testing platform for the community, Allen said. “This cold and flu season, we need to know, do you have the flu or do you have COVID?” he said, noting that a positive Quidel test suggests that a person is infective; the test only detects higher levels of the virus.

The rapid test has given providers peace of mind, said Tate Gordon, a Physician Assistant-Certified, who cares for patients at Visalia Medical Clinic’s walk-in clinic, QuickCare. “It’s been amazing to have someone walk in with symptoms and minutes later have results and know exactly what’s wrong with them,” he said. “This virus is scary. You don’t know what’s going to happen to people. Having immediate results eases me a little because I can watch them over the next week to make sure they are OK.”

As of Monday, Sept. 25, Kaweah Delta was caring for 29 patients with COVID-19 in its Medical Center, five of whom were in intensive care. Kaweah Delta will continue to share COVID-19 information and regular updates with the community on its website at www.kaweahdelta.org/COVID19, via media statements, and on its social media accounts. For information on VMC, call 739-2000 or visit www.vmchealth.com.

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