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Drive-through COVID testing reopens in Polson, Ronan

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In the COVID era, when is a cold just a cold? That’s the question I asked myself last Thursday, when I woke up with a stuffy nose, scratchy throat, achy body and an urge to stay in bed all day. I had been to a concert with more than 3,000 people a few nights before, which included riding a crowded bus to and from the event. I’m fully vaccinated, but could I be a COVID carrier in danger of infecting vulnerable friends and family members?

Mike Johnson was asking a similar question Friday, when he pulled through the COVID testing site at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Polson. As he waited for his test, I quizzed him about his reasons for wanting one. 

The day before, his temperature had been 3 degrees higher than usual, he had a headache and felt extremely nauseous. By Friday he was feeling much better and his temperature was normal. Like me, he’s fully vaccinated. Still, he doesn’t want to risk exposing his unvaccinated mother, who lives in Missoula. 

“I worry about her,” he said. “She got a flu vaccine 45 years ago and it made her sick and she hasn’t gotten a vaccine since then.” He’s tried to talk her into it, but adds, “she’s stubborn.”

The healthcare workers stationed at the drive-through testing site swab noses all day long for a range of people, from those who have mild symptoms to those who have been exposed to the virus, or both. The drive-through can also provide pre-travel and pre-surgery testing. 

Mild symptoms include a sore throat, mild cough, congestion, fever that’s less than 100.4 degrees, fatigue, body aches, digestive issues, or loss of taste or smell. Those with more severe symptoms – temperature of 101 or above, oxygen saturation under 90 percent, difficulty breathing, or a burning sensation in their lungs – should head to the hospital’s front entrance to a see a provider, or the emergency room after hours.

The drive-through was just reintroduced last Monday in the wake of a ballooning number of patients seeking tests, but not needing to be seen by a provider. 

“We’ve just been so inundated with patients inside that there’s been no way to keep up with everything,” said Director of Nursing Erin Rumelhart. “This works great – it’s a quick, drive-through registration and COVID swab.”  

In Ronan, St. Luke Community Healthcare is offering a similar drive-through option. According to hospital spokesperson Whitney Liegakos, the facility is experiencing “significant testing volumes” due to the spike in infections across the state spurred by the highly contagious Delta variant. 

“Prior to Delta, our average was a handful a day,” she says. “It’s definitely increased significantly,” with the clinic administering around 50 tests a day. St. Joseph averages between 40 and 60 tests daily, and plans to keep its drive-through open for at least a month.

Hospital staff informs the public of test results, which typically take 24 to 72 hours. Better yet, patients may check for results via the MyChart portals at each facility. 

Positive results are sent to Lake County Public Health or Tribal Health for contact tracing. However, on Friday a Facebook post noted that public health was “currently up 77 cases since yesterday’s report,” and short on staff, putting them “several days behind in making those calls.” 

Those who have been informed of a positive test result are encouraged to isolate at home and reach out to their close contacts. The health department promises “a case investigator will follow up with you as soon as possible.” 

Home test kits are available, but draw mixed reviews from healthcare providers. St. Luke Director of Nursing Abigail Byers says the facility has used the Binax rapid antigen test since last year. “Our saying all along has been a positive is a positive, and a negative could still be a positive.”

The gold standard is the Polymerase chain reaction test (PCR) – aka the nose swab. And since positive antigen tests, whether given at home or in the hospital, are always backed up with a PCR, she recommends sticking with the nose swab.

“If you are concerned enough to do a home test you would be better off doing a PCR test and then isolating yourself from others until the result comes back,” she says. “A negative antigen test is not a ticket to go roam free, especially if you have symptoms.”

Devin Huntley, COO at Providence St. Joseph, notes that Salish Kootenai College and Montana State University have teamed up to research the efficacy of home testing. 

“The at-home tests are somewhat new to the market and they have received mixed reviews,” he adds. “Believe it or not, one of the biggest hurdles we’ve heard is that the instructions can be difficult to follow.” 

As far as accuracy is concerned, much of that depends on how precise the sample collection is. “The important thing to remember is that we are blessed to have such a vibrant healthcare community in this valley,” he adds. “If you aren’t feeling good please go to the hospital.”

Ultimately, I did decide to take the PCR test (it’s really not that bad) and should know by Monday whether it’s safe for me to consort this week with my 80-year-old friends. 

Lake County Testing Information

Providence St. Joseph, Polson: The drive-through testing clinic (located west of the hospital) is open weekdays from 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. (patients register by phone when they pull into line). Testing is available for those with mild symptoms or needing a test prior to surgery or travel. Those with more severe symptoms should visit the hospital’s walk-in clinic, open 8 a.m.-7 p.m. daily, or the emergency room. 

For more information, visit or call 883-5680.

St. Luke Community Healthcare, Ronan: A drive-through option is available from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. at the clinic for those who want to be tested or need a test for surgical procedures or travel (although they can’t promise results in less than 72 hours). Call 676-3600 for appointments. Convenient Care is open for walk-in testing from 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. 

Those with symptoms who would like to be seen by a provider are directed to Convenient Care, open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. weekends. Emergency services are available around the clock. Details are available at or on the hospital’s Facebook page.

Tribal Health Department: Tribal Health offers free COVID testing to tribal members from 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays at the Salish Kootenai College clinic (call 745-3525 for appointments) and is making home-testing kits available. The mobile clinic will also offer screening as staff becomes available; check the Tribal Health Facebook page for updates. 

Vaccines: With a vaccine rate of 58%, Lake County still has room for improvement. Both Moderna and Pfizer COVID vaccines are available from local healthcare providers, Tribal Health and pharmacies across the Lake County. Pfizer booster shots have just been authorized for those 65 years and older and residents in long-term care settings six months after their last shot. Younger people with underlying medical conditions or who are at increased risk for COVID-19 exposure and transmission due to occupation or institutional settings are also eligible.  

The Food and Drug Administration is currently reviewing data for a Moderna booster, but hasn’t received an application from Johnson & Johnson for a booster of its vaccine. 

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