Tobey Hospital opens coronavirus testing center

May 5, 2020

Patients can now walk up to the triage tents outside Tobey Hospital for a coronavirus test — if they have an appointment.

The new testing center is part of Southcoast Health’s effort to significantly increase the number of tests it can administer as it is likely that the pandemic will not peak on the South Coast for several more weeks.

Currently, between 20 and 38 patients are being tested in the tents each day.

Tonya Johnson, the vice president of operations and the site administrator for testing, said that the number of patients being tested will fluctuate according to the demand for tests and the number of tests available.

Tests are ordered for patients by health care providers including primary care doctors or those in emergency rooms or urgent care centers. Patients must be symptomatic and meet other criteria set by the state to qualify for the test. There is no copay for the tests. 

When patients arrive to be tested, they confirm their identity with a staff person before being tested. The nurse takes a long swab which is inserted into the patient’s nose and “kind of towards the back of the throat” for a sample. Although it’s somewhat uncomfortable, the test is quick, and patients receive results within one to three days. 

Sarah Desmond, one of the nurses staffing the testing center, usually works in a Southcoast Urgent Care facility. She said that when she was asked to work testing for coronavirus, she was initially apprehensive.

“I was hesitant at first when my boss called me, but once I got here and I got my PPE on and realized that people aren’t hacking in your face and aren’t just totally contaminating you it put me at ease. Having the proper PPE is definitely a comfort,” Desmond said.

Those being tested are usually worried, too.

“People are usually kind of nervous about getting the swab, because you see it in the media and it’s this intense, terrifying swab so when people come in at first they’re very anxious, and almost afraid to come into the tent itself,” Desmond said.

However, the nurses said that once the test — which is very brief — is complete, patients are usually relieved to know they will get answers soon. 

The tents outside Tobey are one of three testing stations run by Southcoast, in addition to a drive-up center in Dartmouth and a mobile testing center run out of the hospital group’s mobile van. 

“I think there are still a lot of unknowns and that’s why people should be treading with caution,” said Johnson. 

Johnson said that the best way to support frontline workers is to follow the governor’s guidelines, carefully social distance, stay home when possible and wear masks.

The impact of the disease on patients varies widely, Johnson said. 

“We see 40-year-old individuals that have been critically ill while an 80-year-old survives and does well and is discharged, so that’s been challenging,” Johnson said. “I think the other piece is, for the patients, not being able to see their families and for families to not be able to see the patients has been a really challenging hurdle.”
Johnson said that healthcare workers have been stepping up to provide even more emotional support for coronavirus patients as they are separated from loved ones. 

“We spend more time sitting at the bedside and holding hands and things like that, which we’ve always done, but it’s just so much more important right now,” Johnson said. “I commend [the staff] for doing the work every single day. They are doing amazing work.”

While the total number of coronavirus patients at Tobey Hospital is fairly steady, the number of occupied beds across Southcoast’s system is increasing. On May 4, there were a total of seven coronavirus patients at Tobey, two of whom were in the intensive care unit.

Across the Southcoast system, there were 83 coronavirus patients being treated as inpatients, including 28 in intensive care units. There were a further 89 patients who were suspected to have coronavirus, many of whom had coronavirus tests pending.

“By no means do we feel we have seen the worst of it,” Shawn Badgley, the public information officer for Southcoast Health, said. “We are by no means letting our guard down.”
Badgley said that while Providence and Boston are seeing cases plateau or decrease, the South Coast’s trajectory is a few weeks behind that of those cities.

As the weather warms and people grow tired of social distancing, Badgley said that it is still just as important to be vigilant about following social distancing protocols and the new mask mandate.

“Schools, economies, and governments have been shaken to the core because of this pandemic. Now is not the time to breezily toss away our masks and the precautions we’ve been taking just because it’s sunny out, or because we’ve grown tired of taking those precautions and wearing those masks. We're just not there yet,” Badgley said. “We’ve made progress due to these newly instituted practices and these precautions, but we’re not at the point where we're ready to say mission accomplished.”

Badgley said that there continue to be spikes in the numbers of people diagnosed with coronavirus, and the projected death toll of the disease is magnitudes higher than it was even a few weeks ago.

“For the safety of our friends, our families, our neighbors, and our fellow residents, people need to take a step back and really think about the choices they make,” Badgley said. “This is not something to casually decide on one’s own… We really need to all get on the same page and stick to the plan here.”

Tobey Hospital and Southcoast are continuing to aggressively source personal protective equipment including N95 masks and gowns to make sure staff will have the protection they need.
The hospital has also begun using infrared to test the temperature of everyone who enters the hospital, including employees, delivery people, vendors, and the few visitors allowed under the hospital’s pandemic policy. 

Southcoast is also working on rolling out new programs to reach those who are less likely to seek testing and treatment from the hospital for any number of reasons.

“We talk about being in this together, but we can also see that our most vulnerable can quite easily be left behind if they don’t have health systems reach out to them,” Badgley said.

Last week, Southcoast’s Wellness Van visited the docks in New Bedford to provide coronavirus testing for fishermen who would be departing on a voyage in the next few days, far enough in the future that tests could be processed before the boats left. 

“It was effective, and there was enough evidence that it was a worthwhile endeavour to keep doing it, and to start reaching out to other hard-to-reach professions,” Badgley said.

Those who think they may have coronavirus should reach out to their primary care doctor to schedule an appointment or call the Southcoast coronavirus hotline, which is staffed by nurses and free for anyone to call, at 508-973-1919.