Drive-through coronavirus testing starting in Rome, Utica

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Elections in four Oneida County villages scheduled for Wednesday have been postponed at least a month to help prevent the spread of the COVD-19 coronavirus, and hospitals in Rome and Utica are setting up drive-through testing sites for the virus for people referred for it by their doctors.

As of Monday, no cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed by tests, but the ramifications of the efforts to slow its spread rippled through the community.

County Executive Anthony Picente said the elections decision was difficult, but he noted that elderly residents are deemed generally most susceptible to the coronavirus, along with people with underlying respiratory illnesses, and are often the most reliable voters and comprise the bulk of poll workers. Many village races are uncontested, and those in office will remain until elections are held.

“We’re in no ordinary time here, so everything has to be changed,” Picente said.

Picente also announced that the Mohawk Valley Health System, operator of Faxton-St. Luke’s and St. Elizabeth Hospital in Utica, and Rome Memorial Hospital are setting up drive-through testing sites like those established last week in the hard-hit Westchester County community of New Rochelle and Long Island. The testing centers allow for quick testing of people who have symptoms like those of the COVID-19 coronavirus and minimize risk if they do have it to health workers and other patients in hospitals and doctors’ offices. State centers were also being set up on Staten Island and Rockland County.

The MVHS site is on Burrstone Road in Utica and opened Monday. In Rome, it will be at Chestnut Commons on Chestnut Street. Both are open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., with hours adjusted as needed.

An appointment is necessary and can be made on referral of a physician. Residents without a regular care provider may call the county Health Department, and those with severe symptoms should contact an urgent care facility first. 

There is no charge.

The county established a special telephone number dedicated to questions about COVID-19: (315) 798-5431

Other clinic-related questions should still be directed to (315) 798-5747.

The state Department of Health hotline for coronavirus information is (888) 364-3065.

In other developments, Picente said the state has waived rules that will help the county set up and expand daycare providers. Picente ordered closing of public schools Friday, and on Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said all state schools will close by Wednesday. More than 80 percent were closed as of Monday, all creating child care demands for many families across the state.

In Oneida County, priority will be given to children of health care workers so they do not have to miss work when most needed because their children are out of school, Picente said.

The announcement of closingbars, restaurants and taverns except for take-out service caught county-level officials by surprise. Picente he would not have done it today, though it was generally expected to happen at the state level.

Also difficult is the governor’s directive that local governments reduce their work forces by half and allow non-essential employees to work from home. The definition of “essential” isn’t clear, as many of the county’s 1,600 employees work in law enforcement, social services, public health, mental health, probation and similar functions, all now needed to deal with the rippling effects of COVID-19.

“This is a time I need all hands on deck,” Picente said.

As of Monday afternoon, 36 people were quarantined, 39 on precautionary home isolation, one person was dismissed, and 34 tests were pending. 

The efforts at reducing the spread are aimed at keeping the number of people who need hospital care at any one time does not exceed capacity of the health care system. Cuomo and others have warned that the state and nation could face a crisis like that in parts in Italy, where doctors have had to ration ventilators for victims of severe COVID-19 cases.

MVHS is taking steps to build its capacity, said Dr. Kent Hall, the hospitals’ chief physician executive. It has some unused rooms at both its hospitals but they need to be outfitted as they haven’t been used for patient care recently, personnel is the biggest issue, Hall said, alluding to a chronic shortage of nurses. Options include limiting time off and vacations, asking for more overtime, and calling on allied health physicians and physicians and nurse’s assistants.

But Hall expressed confidence in the local and national health care system, and said the drive-through testing is an important step.

“I think it’s vitally important for the testing to become as readily available and easy as possible,” Hall said. “Right now we are having issues with not having enough testing capabiilty … and as we ramp up the number of tests we’re going to need to have more testing equipment, and by that i mean things as simple as swabs to swab people’s noses and throats and the culture medium to put the swabs into.”

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