TAMPA — Hillsborough County has tested about 3,000 people for the coronavirus at its Raymond James Stadium drive-thru site, but officials are concerned about whether their messaging and tests are reaching everyone.
To start, a person must have a car, or access to one, to get tested at the stadium. That means anyone who walks, bikes or relies on transit to get where they need to go can’t be tested there safely.
And earlier this week, Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller raised concerns about whether the county was doing enough to reach minorities, including the African American community.
Whether an individual is black or white, has a car or takes the bus, Miller and his fellow commissioners want to make sure anyone who is sick can find out whether they have contracted COVID-19.
“This virus is deadly and it is killing people,” Miller said. “Do not hesitate. Don’t say this is the flu or a cold. You don’t know. Get tested.”
According to data provided by the county, 130 African Americans have contracted the coronavirus in Hillsborough County, or about 17 percent of all cases. They account for 28 percent of hospitalizations.
“For many reasons, people in our culturally diverse neighborhoods often do not go to a doctor when they feel ill,” Miller said in a statement. “However, we cannot continue to do this during this illness."
Testing at Raymond James Stadium is free to the patient and no health insurance is required.
As long as someone is symptomatic — with a cough, fever or shortness of breath — and calls the county call center to schedule an appointment and arrives in a personal vehicle, they can get tested at no cost.
The personal vehicle is important for protecting both the patient and the healthcare workers, said Nishant Anand, the chief medical officer for BayCare Health Systems, which provides drive-thru testing in Tampa Bay.
“They key concept around the drive-thru model is one, it’s an efficient model where we can test quite a number of individuals, much more than you could if you came into an office,” Anand said. “And two, it protects patients, employees and physicians collecting samples.”
The car provides a natural barrier, Anand said. Patients don’t have to come into contact with others waiting to get tested, and they stay a safe distance away from those collecting personal information and medical samples.
The process also allows the medical staff to use the same personal protective gear longer, instead of having to constantly cycle it out, Anand said.
But not everyone is able to drive to the community site. Hillsborough Commissioner Kimberly Overman started asking county staff weeks ago how those who are transit-dependent can be tested.
On the first day of testing at the stadium last month, officials with Tampa General Hospital said they were prepared to test a small number of people who didn’t have a car and walked up and needed to be tested.
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“It’s not something we’re encouraging,” said Adam Smith, senior vice president of Tampa General Hospital.
But now county leaders are pivoting away from that message and instead working to set up an at-home testing option.
This service is already available for people who are clients at Suncoast Community Health Center or Tampa Family Health Center. The two federally-qualified health centers do testing on site but also have the mobile capabilities to go out and test people in their homes, said Hillsborough Emergency Coordinator Tim Dudley.
The county hopes to start its own version of in-home testing that would be available to all residents, whether or not they have insurance or are patients of a particular healthcare provider.
“We’re looking to close the gap, whether they’re uninsured or underinsured,” said Hillsborough Fire Chief Dennis Jones. “We want to be able to go into a home, collect a sample and get it tested.”
Jones said the county hopes to have the service available “very soon." People who are symptomatic are encouraged to call the county call center at (813) 272-5900, which is open Monday through Friday. If they don’t have access to a car or personal vehicle, they should mention that on the call.
“We understand the urgency for this and we are working as swiftly as possible,” Jones said. “Our passion is that we get the opportunity to test every citizen in Hillsborough County who needs it.”
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