NIHD could see quicker, local COVID-19 testing results

Terrance Vestal
Managing Editor

Mono County’s first positive test result of COVID-19, which was announced Saturday, if nothing else, validates what the Eastern Sierra region is doing as far as isolation, Dr. Stacey Brown, Family Medicine physician and director of NIHD’s Rural Health Clinic, said Monday.
The Mono County patient was a local male in his 40s hospitalized at Mammoth Lakes Hospital since March 15. He was appropriately isolated with the appropriate techniques at Mammoth Hospital, Brown said, adding that it was a fairly suspicious case to start with.
Testing and obtaining test results in a timely fashion, however, continues to be a challenge, the doctor said.
Brown said Monday the district had conducted a total of 34 tests for COVID-19. Eighteen of those tests have been negative and the balances are pending. Inyo County has yet to see its first confirmed COVID-19 case.
The difficulty is that the tests that both NIHD and Mammoth Hospital are sending out are still sent to a company called LabCorp on the East Coast and the turnaround time is, on average, four to seven days, Brown said.
“Some of them still are pending now, seven days out,” he added.
However, Brown said the Food and Drug Administration has issued an emergency authorization that is set to go into effect Wednesday that will allow the company Cepheid to release bed-side coronavirus testing.
Brown said Northern Inyo has a state-of-the-art machine capable of conducting bed-side testing, which could reduce turnaround times for results to less than an hour locally.
“It may take a little bit of time to get the lab equipment arranged and the quality control and the validation studies completed,” Brown said. “But if this is a possibility, then the hospital may have the ability to turn around a COVD-19 test in about 45 minutes locally, which would be a huge improvement on some of the surveillance that we’re doing.”
Bedside testings would target patients who already are hospitalized, emergency room use, or clearing a health care worker to return to taking care of patients if the worker could have been exposed to COVID-19.
The district still has the availability of testing COVID-19 out in the community as well as in the hospital proper after a patient is properly screened for the test.
But finding COVID-19 among other more common respiratory ailments can be difficult, he said.
“We still have positive influenza in the community and on Friday, we diagnosed two more cases,” Brown said. “It’s definitely confounding trying to weed out what’s flu and what’s cold. We also have respiratory syncytial virus, commonly called RSV, in the kids, so we got fevers and coughs in those and it makes it a little bit difficult to find that needle in the haystack when you’re looking for one thing and there’s lots of stuff that looks like it.”
Brown said the district, with assistance from the community, is rolling out what the doctor has dubbed “Project Cover Up.” He said it involves a group of about 60 local quilters and seamstresses who are going to be banding together in the community to get patterns and fabric out to create masks and surgical gowns for use in the district.
“We’re good on the disposable medical-grade stuff,” Brown said, “but this is a forward-thinking initiative for us to be able to use our community, have the community give back to the district, and help out if we ended up dipping into some of the protective personal equipment that we need in the future.”
Brown said the effort is currently headed by Barbara Stuhan, a surgical nurse manager who served the district for many years.
“She (Stuhan) remembers using those cloth gowns in the operating room in her tenure here,’ Brown said. “So this is a great community partnership with the district to try to get some needed protective personal equipment. That’s a really powerful force that we can end up tapping into locally.”

CAPTION: NIHD Nursing Care team members Andrew Stevens, RN MSN-MHA CEN, left, and Natalie Leroux-Lindsey, CNA, work to prepare the Emergency Room’s overflow area for potential COVID-19 patients.
Photo by Barbara Laughon/Northern Inyo Healthcare District