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Healthcare providers decide who to test for COVID-19

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LAKE COUNTY – The first cases of the novel coronavirus have been diagnosed in the area, so those displaying symptoms are rushing to local healthcare providers to get tested; however, due to a limited number of testing supplies at the state level, not everyone with a cough or fever is being tested for the virus. 

The limited number of tests for the virus has been the subject of much attention. In Montana, the number of supplies for administering the tests and the number of supplies available for running tests in the lab are limited. Specific numbers were not available at press time. That means medical providers are trying to reduce the number of people they test for the illness to save the tests for those who really need them.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is not necessary for everyone with symptoms of the illness to be tested. Most cases of the virus are mild, and people recover without the need for medical attention. The CDC says testing is most vital for people at risk for serious illness related to the virus. Testing can also help prevent the spread of the virus, as those who have been diagnosed are given strict orders to quarantine.   

A healthcare provider must order tests. Those who are not tested, but have symptoms, can be required to quarantine for 14 days or until symptoms subside. Healthcare providers will make recommendations on a case-by-case basis. 

Lake County Public Health is closely monitoring the spread of the disease, but the department is not able to provide testing. Those who are experiencing common symptoms of the virus, like fever, shortness of breath or coughing, should contact their primary care provider by phone. Healthcare providers can provide advice and screening by phone to determine whether a test is necessary.

As of March 27, St. Luke Community Healthcare had administered 42 COVID-19 tests. All tests were negative at that time, but a St. Luke patient has tested positive since. Abigail Byers, St. Luke director of nursing, said the healthcare facility rules out other illnesses with similar symptoms, like strep throat and flu before administering the COVID-19 test. So far, everyone who was suspected of having the virus has been tested. “That doesn’t mean we won’t run into [a testing access] problem in the future,” Byers said. 

On March 24, Providence St. Joseph Medical Center announced that they had created a set of priorities that would determine who is tested. These priorities are intended to determine who is at greatest risk of developing serious illness or spreading the disease. By providing tests only when they are absolutely necessary, St. Joseph will conserve testing supplies and personal protective gear. Healthcare providers who test patients are required to wear extensive personal protective gear, which is in short supply.

Those in the following groups will be prioritized for testing if they show symptoms: those who are hospitalized, residents of long-term care facilities, those at higher risk of severe infection, residents and staff of corrections facilities and healthcare personnel. 

Medical providers warn that while the COVID-19 test is free, patients will still be billed for their office visit. Patients will be responsible for paying any costs not covered by health insurance.

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