With students’ return to classrooms has come increased virus spread, so Dr. Jennifer Clark has homework for parents and all adults: Develop a testing strategy now before a COVID exposure forces you to scramble.
The good news? Although many remain unaware, the federal government requires insurers to cover all costs of a COVID-19 diagnostic test — no matter the reason or how often — for individuals with medical insurance. And there is a federal fund set aside to cover the costs for individuals without insurance.
The bad news is actually good reason to come up with a testing strategy. Oklahoma health officials on Thursday reported 4,152 new COVID-19 cases — the most in a single day since late January and a 64% increase over Wednesday. Friday was the second-highest case count for the current surge at 3,338, moving the seven-day average up to 2,577 new cases daily.
Only 11 days have seen a higher single-day total, all before the vaccine was widely available.
State Health Commissioner Lance Frye called the jump concerning and noted the increasing spread is “especially in schools” — noteworthy because school boards are prohibited from implementing mask mandates after Gov. Kevin Stitt signed that legislative bill into law.
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The demand for COVID testing is rising, evidenced by long lines at sites offering tests, but the number of specimens tested in Oklahoma has actually been steadily decreasing since last month. Some residents in southwest Oklahoma are showing up to emergency rooms only for a COVID test.
Some COVID-19 diagnostic testing sites are no longer open because the federal funds supporting them have been spent, and medical professionals to staff them are in short supply with overwhelmed hospitals. But other options for testing remain — at least for residents in metro areas.
Clark, a former hospital administrator who handles COVID-19 data for Oklahoma State University’s Project ECHO, said the conundrum confronting the medical community in Oklahoma is a nursing shortage that started before the pandemic.
Where is staffing most needed now? Clark said the most critical needs are where resources must be focused. So intensive-care units win out over trying to staff testing or vaccination clinics.
A testing bottleneck was identified last week in Edmond after reported exposures in a school caused a slew of parents to rush to get their children tested. Dr. Dale Bratzler said most pharmacies in that area offer testing but appointments were booked up, creating challenges for some people seeking testing.
“It’s harder to find tests now than it was in the January and February time when many, many different sites around the state had open testing sites because they were fully funded,” said Bratzler, University of Oklahoma’s chief COVID officer. “CARES Act funding ran out for testing.”
Bratzler said OU Health considered reopening its drive-through testing but didn’t because the university would have to pull nurses from patient care — not an appealing option as hospitals are overwhelmed by the delta variant-driven summer surge.
“The pandemic just ripped the scab off of that old, old wound, and we’re now dealing with the fallout of that,” said Clark. “Since the pandemic and through both surges that we’ve experienced, we’ve lost nurses, we’ve lost doctors, we’ve lost respiratory therapists.”
She said people, unfortunately, generally aren’t trying to get a test unless they are sick or have an exposure — which isn’t enough testing.
“If you are working in a high-risk environment, if you are participating in high-risk activities ... or living with or caring for somebody with a high-risk condition, consider getting weekly testing proactively,” Clark said. “Every week I get tested. Just come up with a plan for that.”
The Oklahoma State Department of Health is sending testing resources to the southwest part of the state after hospitals reported increases in individuals seeking COVID testing in already-strapped ERs instead of elsewhere in the community.
Deputy Commissioner Keith Reed on Thursday said OSDH is working with a third-party vendor to set up drive-through testing clinics and sending rapid antigen tests to local health departments to add capacity.
“We want people — unless they need medical care — we want to keep them out of the hospital,” Reed said. “If it’s just get a test, we want them to be able to get a test at a local health department, through one of our partners or a pharmacy — other options.”
Reed said there doesn’t appear to be a statewide issue with COVID diagnostic testing but that OSDH is monitoring the situation.
He did note that OSDH is working on a program to get rapid testing into schools and help provide screenings.
No-cost testing mandated
Oklahoma Insurance Department Deputy Commissioner Mike Rhoads said there has been misunderstanding about costs for an insured individual to get a COVID-19 diagnostic test.
Simply put, Rhoads said insured individuals pay nothing under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. No deductibles. No copays. No cost sharing. Testing sites will ask for insurance cards to bill the insurers to recoup their costs, Rhoads said.
A physician’s order isn’t needed, either. No symptoms nor exposure to the virus? The test is still covered.
“I just think that that’s peace of mind,” Rhoads said. “And certainly if people are traveling, they want to get this test before they walk into grandma and grandpa’s house in Oregon or whatever. They don’t want to bring something in there, so they get tested.
“(Testing may be done) as frequently as desired at this point in time. There may be changing criteria, but certainly not in this environment where we have the surge of the delta variant.”
OID’s recommendation is to inquire with a primary care physician where to seek a test to stay in network, though Rhoads said generally the networks are comprehensive.
OID says home-testing kits aren't free but that they can be purchased through an HSA insurance card. HSAs are part of a high-deductible insurance plan, OID says, so not all benefit plans have an HSA provision.
Correction: This story originally noted an incorrect procedure for those seeking over-the-counter testing. The story has been corrected.
COVID-19 testing options
The Tulsa Health Department on Aug. 17 restarted its COVID-19 testing program, opening 60 slots from 1-5 p.m. on Tuesdays at its northside location, 5635 N. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
Priscilla Haynes, a nurse and division chief of preventive health services for THD, said that operation is targeting individuals with low resources. Haynes said THD is nearing contracts with two third-party providers to relaunch more COVID testing.
THD contracted with Access Medical Care and Tulsa Mobile COVID testing from June 21 through Aug. 12. Haynes said the new contracts could last for up to six months.
More options can be found on THD’s website, tulsa-health.org. Call 918-582-9355 to schedule a test. Individuals without health insurance can receive a COVID test without cost under a federal program through THD, Saint Francis, Walgreens and CVS.
Saint Francis Health System — Warren Clinic Elm in Broken Arrow has a drive-through clinic that is open seven days a week during urgent care hours, with no appointments required.
Ascension St. John — COVID-19 testing for the public is handled through Regional Medical Laboratory by appointment, mostly from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. There are multiple RML locations in Tulsa County, with a high-capacity drive-through facility at 9330 E. 41st St: rmlonline.com
Hillcrest HealthCare System — The Utica Park Respiratory Clinic at 7600 S. Lewis does drive-through testing for COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses by appointment only from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Call 918-579-DOCS (3627) to schedule an appointment.
Clarehouse — Clarehouse at 7617 S. Mingo Road has a drive-through testing clinic from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays. Register at clarehouse.org to schedule an appointment.