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Hospital leaders highlight drive-thru testing site, addition of new COVID medication and expanded immediate care hours

 - An Oregon National Guard soldier sent to help with healthcare amid the delta variant outbreak meets with a drive-thru COVID test participant.

The latest delta variant-charged COVID-19 surge is projected to peak in the Central Oregon region in the next couple weeks.

As health care officials deal with the latest and most significant surge to date, officials with St. Charles Prineville are launching some new services and upgrades to help slow spread of the virus and enhance service for people who get infected.

Todd Shields, vice president hospital administrator for St. Charles Health System, recently highlighted three changes, the first of which is the launch of a new drive-thru testing site in Prineville. The testing area, located in the northwest corner of the local hospital parking lot, held a "soft launch" Sept. 2-3 and then officially went live on Sept. 7.

Shield said that the site "allows people to come through if they have been exposed to someone as a high risk or they are symptomatic." He added that the drive-thru testing option has been available for several months, although prior to the recent launch, a doctor's order was required to take advantage of the service. That is no longer the case.

"Obviously, it was a need in the community because we have had some big numbers for us in Prineville," Shields said.

According to Joanna McCabe, clinical services supervisor with Crook County Health Department, local case numbers between Sept. 5-11 reached 123, the highest since the pandemic began. The local surge, like all others in the U.S., is fueled primarily by the delta variant.

"We are still breaking daily records for the number of cases," she said.

Statewide, the peak of this recent surge was reached around Labor Day Weekend, and numbers in Oregon have been trending down. Locally, this is not expected to happen for a couple more weeks as Central Oregon has tended to lag behind Oregon's more populated areas.

The drive-thru testing site is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday and people who without a doctor's order can do a self-nasal swab. Hospital staff will swab people with doctor's orders.

The site is not available to people seeking a test for travel or to attend an event where a negative test is required.

"That's simply due to the demand for tests," explained Dr. Maggie King of St. Charles Prineville. She went on to explain that adding those additional tests would result in delayed test results, bumping the timeline from 24-48 hours to 48-72 hours.

In addition to the drive-thru testing service, St. Charles Prineville is partnering with Crook County Health Department to provide monoclonal antibody therapy. The therapy mimics the immune system's ability to fight back against harmful antigens, enabling the body to fight back against the COVID virus earlier, which may prevent them from getting sicker and needing to be hospitalized. It has emergency use authorization from the FDA.

"For us, it was something we could offer to our community and really positively affect the hospitalization rates, potentially the death rates," McCabe said. "It's really a third facet in addition to masking and vaccine to address the pandemic."

The therapy is provided to people who have a positive COVID test and have a higher risk for moderate or severe COVID-19 disease. It is administered via four consecutive injections.

"It has been shown to reduce the risk of hospitalizations, emergency department visits and deaths by about 70%," McCabe said. "It is highly effective."

The third change Shields announced is an upcoming expansion to the local immediate care center (ICC), which St. Charles Prineville launched in March 2020. The ICC has been open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. up to this point, but will soon expand to 12 hours a day, Monday through Friday and 10 hours on Saturday and Sunday.

Shields acknowledged that the ICC would likely have expanded hours regardless of the status of the pandemic but said the hospital has seen a significant need for more access during the past year.

King agrees, noting that current COVID case numbers have increased the number of patients in the ICC.

"We need additional providers there to see the patients that are coming in," she said, "so part of the expansion is we are going to have a second provider available, which will be great. We can see a lot more patients in a more timely manner."

The expanded hours are expected to take place in the near future, although Shields could not yet provide specifics. He said the timing of the change will depend on the hire of additional providers.

"Our goal is in October or maybe November of this year," he said.

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