Sansum’s CEO Explains the Experimental COVID-19 Car-Based Testing Program

Dr. Kurt Ransohoff Worries that Testing Supplies Are Still in Short Supply

A healthcare professional gives a COVID-19 test to a patient at Samsun. Test are given to only those that have an appointment. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

Though Sansum Clinic’s experimental “car based” COVID-19 testing program at its Urgent Care Center on Pesetas Lane off Highway 154 can’t compare with South Korea’s huge drive-through testing programs, it’s a small start in the right direction. Sansum CEO Dr. Kurt Ransohoff said the new pilot program — by appointment only — will help determine whether it should be expanded to other locations given the realities of the Central Coast medical world and the nation’s ever evolving testing capacity.

Right now, Ransohoff stated, all publicly owned and operated labs in Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo counties are only capable of processing “dozens of tests a day.” Though the big corporate labs such as Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp have recently expanded that capacity by many thousands, their increased production must serve the entire nation. Mega-companies like Roche are projected to enlarge capacity significantly, but not immediately.

For the time being, Ransohoff said the demand for tests vastly eclipses the supply. Making matters worse, it’s flu season. “People who a year ago thought they had a bad cold or the flu now worry they have coronavirus,” he said. “Everybody wants to get tested. The question we face is who really needs to be tested?”

The new testing center allows patients who’ve reported breathing difficulties, a temperature of 100.4 degrees, and a new cough to drive into the Urgent Care parking lot where they are met with a team of Sansum lab workers, dressed in protective gowns, gloves, goggles, mask, and shield goggles. They will extract swab samples from the back of the throat and nasal passages. If all goes well, the results should be back within a day. Given the increasing demand, however, it could take two days. The private labs, by contrast, take anywhere from four to five days for the results to be delivered.

The tests themselves — whether public or private — require skilled lab technicians of which there are few available. Sansum’s center can handle around 10 tests a day. Each exchange takes about half an hour. Testing possible COVID patients outside will reduce the disruption and risk to other clinic patients and the staff inside. A few Sansum workers, he noted, have been tested for possible infection, though none have come back positive yet. Some of the protective equipment can be used more than once, according to Ransohoff, who said it was a supply challenge getting the swabs and some of the protective gear, too.

The big question is whether the testing initiative works. Does the geometry of health worker to car driver allow samples to be taken effectively? Can older patients with mobility challenges arrange their bodies such that swabs can be extracted? Will they show up with their kids in the back seat? Ransohoff wondered. One driver showed up with a passenger smoking a cigarette.

More comprehensive testing, the doctor said, is critical to get a better bead on the prevalence of the disease. But either way, he stressed, there’s still no treatment. For most patients who test positive, the instructions will be to go home and stay there until you’re better. That typically means at least 72 hours until the symptoms subside without the intervention of Tylenol.

Sansum and Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics are both offering the car-based testing. And Cottage Hospital is now testing in the inflatable building recently installed by its Emergency Room parking lot.

In all cases, patients must be screened by their health-care provider first and be given an appointment. “This is an experiment,” Ransohoff stressed. “We don’t want it to get overwhelmed by people showing up saying, ‘I hear this is the place.’” At the time of the interview, Ransohoff said Sansum had tested six patients. By the time they have 100, he said, he’ll have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t.  

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