Phelps Health now has antibody testing on-site to help evaluate the incidence and trends for COVID-19 in Phelps County as the healthcare organization looks at how to reopen services to the community.
Phelps Health began offering serology antibody testing for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 to the community on May 26. Division Chief of Primary Care for Phelps Health Medical Group Dr. Rachelle Gorrell said the antibody test is conducted by taking a blood sample from an individual to detect past infection with the COVID-19 virus.
The antibody test is not checking for the virus itself but is looking for a person’s immune response to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, Gorrell said.
“Particularly, there are two antibodies that we usually see. One is IgM; it comes up quickly after exposure. Another one is IgG that comes up later after you have been exposed, maybe several weeks later. Again, it is telling us how well our body is responding to the virus,” Gorrell said.
As health officials expect the second wave of COVID-19 in the fall to coincide with flu season, antibody testing for SARS-CoV-2 could help Phelps Health understand how the immune response against the SARS-CoV-2 virus develops in patients over time, and how many people may have been infected in the community.
The testing will also help the organization prepare for a potential resurgence of COVID-19.
“This would be helpful since the coronavirus could still come back in the fall. One thing to be cautious about, unfortunately, is it could come back while we have the flu come back again, so the fall could be tricky for us,” Gorrell said.
Phelps Health recently purchased an analyzer to process antibody testing on-site, but the capacity for testing is currently limited due to a shortage of supplies, which has impacted healthcare providers across the country, according to Gorrell.
The testing was initially only available to front-line workers at Phelps Health and first responders within the community who may have been exposed to COVID-19 because of their work.
As more supplies become available, the organization will continue to expand its testing capacity throughout the community.
“Antibody testing is another way for us to learn about this new virus and better understand how to protect our staff, patients and community,” Phelps Health President and CEO Ed Clayton said.
Although Phelps Health is ready to start offering antibody testing to the community, the presence of antibodies does not guarantee immunity from the COVID-19 virus. Antibody testing is new, and the results will require further evaluation by medical professionals.
Gorrell said currently health officials do not know if the antibodies that result from SARS-CoV-2 infection will provide someone with immunity from getting infected again.
There is still a lot to learn about the process, she said.
“If you do show positivity to the IgG antibody, does that keep you from not getting the coronavirus later? How long does that immunity last? There are a lot of questions that we need to get answered yet,” Gorrell said.
Patients who are interested in antibody testing should contact their primary care provider’s office to determine if they meet the requirements for testing.
Meanwhile, Gorrell said community members should remain diligent in taking the necessary steps to help prevent the spread of the virus even with the low number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Phelps County.
“I would encourage everybody to still be cautious. Do good hand sanitizing, wear your mask when you are out. It does look like we are getting better, but we do not want to lose our focus and get caught with the coronavirus coming back to our community,” Gorrell said.
What Patients Can Expect as Phelps Health Gradually Reopens
Phelps Health is following guidelines from national, state and local health organizations to ensure facilities are safe for patients.
The situation remains fluid, and the process to reopen certain services at Phelps Health will be done in phases, Clayton said at Phelps Health’s May Board of Trustees meeting. If the healthcare organization notices a surge of COVID-19 patients at their facilities, the organization will reassess which services they will offer.
Phelps Health will begin reintroducing some elective surgeries, procedures and tests that were temporarily delayed on March 18 following recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and several professional associations for keeping patients safe.
Patients should prepare for a general wellness screening upon arrival at Phelps Health Hospital or clinics. Patients will have their temperature checked, and staff will look for signs of respiratory symptoms associated with COVID-19.
Universal masking is required at Phelps Health’s facilities. Patients must either bring a face mask to wear when visiting one of Phelps Health’s facilities, or staff will provide masks to anyone who does not have one. All staff will be wearing face masks.
Visitors must follow social distancing guidelines in Phelps Health Hospital or clinics. The waiting room seating is spaced to promote social distancing. Patients should call their provider’s office if they are unsure if they can bring someone with them to an appointment.
Patients should not arrive early for their appointments. Patients should arrive on time to help reduce the potential spread of COVID-19 and other illnesses.
Phelps Health will only allow four people in an elevator at one time. Cleaning procedures are also in place to protect patients and Phelps Health staff.
Phelps Health will continue to provide COVID-19 testing for patients who arrive at the drive-through respiratory screening station, located in the Phelps Health and Missouri University of Science and Technology parking lot off 10th St. across from the Emergency Department in Rolla.
On May 26, the drive-through station’s hours of operation were changed to 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. If the drive-through station is closed, patients should go to the Emergency Department.
Providers and staff working at the respiratory screening station will continue to serve patients seeking treatment for respiratory-type conditions. Staff will also continue to provide COVID-19 testing for patients who arrive at the screening station with an order from their primary care provider.
Patients will be diagnosed and treated directly from their vehicles.
Also on May 26, the Phelps Health Medical Group started billing patients who use the drive-through station as a clinic visit instead of an Emergency Department visit.
Laboratory services will continue to be billed by Phelps Health.
As a reminder, Phelps Health said the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) requires all COVID-19 testing and related services to be entirely covered by government insurance plans, including Medicare and Medicaid and most private insurance plans.
Additionally, visits to doctor’s offices, urgent care centers, emergency rooms as well as telehealth visits must be covered by insurance companies as long as these visits relate to providing or administering a COVID-19 test or determining the need for such a test.