When negative is good

Coronavirus testing on the rise following spike in COVID-19 cases
By 
Deb Hill
News-Argus Managing Editor
Friday, October 16, 2020
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Debbie Pratt tests a patient at the drive-through COVID testing site held in the ambulance bay at CMMC in Lewistown.
Photo by Katherine Sears

The recent surge in COVID-19 cases in Central Montana has led to a corresponding spike in the number of people getting tested for coronavirus. For a few this is not the first time through the procedure, but for many it is and they have questions. Luckily, the Central Montana Health District staff, along with health providers across the area, are available to answer those questions.
Many who are being tested are there because of exposure to someone else – a family member, colleague at work, a friend – who has tested positive.
“When someone tests positive, we identify their close contacts, and we let those people know they should get tested themselves,” said Public Health Nurse Julie Rooney. Rooney is one of a small team of health professionals working nearly seven days a week tracking COVID cases.
Rooney said only close contacts – those who were within 6 feet for 15 minutes or more – will need to be tested.

Getting tested
“People need an appointment to be tested,” Rooney said. “That’s because they will need your information ahead of time, so the test vials are already labeled and the chart is set up.”
At CMMC testing takes place outside in an ambulance bay, now configured for this purpose. Those waiting for tests line up in their vehicles at the emergency driveway entrance. Each vehicle drives forward into the bay, the clinician swabs the inside of each person’s nostrils, the swabs are dropped into pre-labeled tubes, and the patient drives forward out the exit, while the next vehicle enters the bay behind them.

Due to the recent surge in cases, on any given afternoon, there is a constant stream of vehicles moving slowly through the testing site.
Testing is also available at the Central Montana Community Health Center, but again, Rooney emphasized, it is by appointment.
“You can’t just show up, you need to call ahead,” Rooney said. At the Health Center, testing is done in the parking lot.
Those who are identified as close contacts to a person testing positive for COVID-19 will receive a call suggesting they get tested. What about those who don’t know if they have been in contact with a person with coronavirus?
“If you feel bad, call your medical provider first, and they will arrange for testing,” Rooney said. “If you don’t have a medical provider, call the Community Health Center.”
At this time, according to Rooney, there is no asymptomatic testing in Central Montana, so those who feel fine but would like a test for COVID-19 “just because” cannot have that done here.

Waiting for results
So let’s say you’ve been tested. What happens next?
If the test was done through your primary care physician, that doctor will call you with results, Rooney said. Otherwise you may very well hear from Rooney or one of her colleagues.
“It can take two to three days, or longer if the labs are busy,” Rooney said. “It may take longer over a weekend to get results. If your test was negative it may take longer for us to notify you, as the priority is given to those with positive test results. If your test was the result of your doctor ordering it due to travel or before a medical procedure, those are also non-priority tests, so notification may take longer.”
Currently there is no rapid testing available to the public in Central Montana, although some organizations have the equipment in order to test their staff.

Positive = quarantine
Test results determine what happens next.
If the test is positive, people are asked to quarantine themselves at home for 10 days from the onset of symptoms, or, if there are no symptoms, 10 days from date of the test.
“This is to prevent exposing others to the coronavirus,” Rooney said. “We ask that you stay home and don’t go to public places to break the chain of transmission.”
What if your test is negative? Rooney suggests those with negative test results still quarantine themselves just to be safe.
“The window for contracting the disease is up to 14 days. We have had five people so far who tested negative initially, but got symptoms on the 14th day. That’s why we suggest people quarantine just in case,” Rooney said.
What does the spike in Central Montana cases mean?
“I think it emphasizes that we need to be protective of each other,” Rooney said. “We need to follow the guidelines, which include wearing a mask, keeping socially distant and not attending large group events. The more we do those things, the less chance there is of passing COVID-19 to others.”

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