Like many other major cities across the U.S., Santa Barbara is seeing rising COVID case numbers coupled with limited testing availability. With a strained test supply chain and overwhelmed laboratories, medical facilities have had to limit whom they test, prioritizing essential workers, symptomatic individuals, and at-risk groups over others.
Even for Sansum Clinic, one Santa Barbara’s largest groups of medical-care providers, test materials have been hard to get. “Ideally, if we had unlimited resources, we should be testing anybody and everybody who wants a test. But the reality is there are just not enough resources to do that,” said Dr. Marjorie Newman, medical director at Sansum. “We were running out of swabs last week, and we had to beg and plead to get more.”
At nearly all health facilities, tests are approved on a tiered system set by County Public Health; those with a low-priority situation may not be guaranteed a test. People who have been in close contact with COVID-positive individuals are classified as Tier 1 and given top priority. People showing symptoms, as well as asymptomatic individuals with chronic medical conditions, those over the age of 60, and people who live or work in a congregate facility, classify as Tier 2. Lastly, people with no symptoms who work in lower-risk fields classify as Tier 3 and are prioritized last.
Most facilities across the county are focusing their efforts toward identifying infected patients rather than testing for potential antibodies from past infections. The widely used nasal swab test, commonly called the PCR test, aims to identify patients currently infected with COVID-19. A secondary test, an antibody blood sample or serology test, can confirm past infections but has proven unreliable in detecting the specific virus that causes COVID-19. Some medical practices and labs offer the test, but we do not note it in this report.
Access to testing services is of the utmost importance to the public as positive cases continue to rise, and guidelines for medical facilities are shifting quickly. The Independent contacted some of the county’s major testing sites to get an overview of the services they provide at the present.
County Public Health Department
The Public Health Department operates three state-funded, free community testing sites in Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, and Buellton. Public Health also offers testing to patients of five community health centers — which charge on a sliding scale — at Franklin (Eastside Santa Barbara), at the main Santa Barbara campus, and in Lompoc, Santa Maria, and Carpinteria. Across all locations, only the PCR test is offered. The wait time for an appointment averages one to two weeks, and upon being tested it then takes three to five days to receive test results.
At the five community health centers, patients should make appointments with their doctors to get tested, and new patients must also make appointments beforehand. Appointment dates are currently three days to two weeks away. For Medi-Cal and Medicare patients, testing at the health centers is free of charge. Uninsured patients pay a sliding fee, with the overall cost being as low as $40.
Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics
The Eastside Neighborhood Clinic, Westside Neighborhood Clinic, Isla Vista Neighborhood Clinic, and Goleta Neighborhood Clinic are the four Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics (SBNC) locations offering testing. Established SBNC patients receive priority in COVID test appointments, although new patients are accepted if space is available. The PCR test is administered most often. An antibody test is available, said Susan Lawton, associate medical director at the Neighborhood Clinics.
It takes between four and seven days on average to receive test results. Because Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics is a designated federally qualified health center, the cost of testing for uninsured patients is covered by a federal grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration.
The MedCenter’s three locations, State Street, Milpas, and Fairview, all offer the same COVID testing services. Both the PCR and antibody tests are available. Everyone can get tested regardless of if they are showing symptoms, but asymptomatic patients must have a reason for wanting a test, such as a suspicion that they’ve been recently exposed or a testing requirement from their school or employer. Patients can schedule appointments online, but walk-in patients are also accepted.
When COVID cases began to rise quickly in Santa Barbara, MedCenter followed a county order instructing them to only serve Tier 1 and Tier 2 patients rather than testing everybody, according to Dr. William Meller. In response, MedCenter has expanded the labs the clinicians work with to improve turnover rates and ensure that they can go back to serving all patients in need of tests. Tests processed through Pacific Diagnostic Laboratories take an average of five to seven days to receive results; other labs can take two to three days. Patients pay a fee to MedCenter, but there is no charge for the COVID test itself. The fee is $141.
Sansum offers COVID testing at its multi-specialty location at 215 Pesetas Lane; Sansum only tests symptomatic patients at this time. In addition to the standard PCR test, which takes one to two days to receive results, Sansum also runs a rapid, 15-minute PCR test to evaluate patients when necessary.
Walk-in/drive-up testing is available, but existing Sansum patients should reach out to their provider to schedule an appointment or determine whether they should be tested. Telehealth visits by video and phone are also available for patients seeking to determine whether they should set up an in-person appointment.
Since the Pesetas Lane location functions as an urgent care center, patients seen in urgent care pay the usual cost for a visit or evaluation, but health insurance covers the cost of testing itself. PCR tests are conducted through Pacific Diagnostic labs, which charges the patient’s insurance for the lab fee.
The Cottage hospital system does not offer testing to the general public. The three hospitals — in Santa Barbara, Goleta, and Santa Ynez — only test patients being admitted, and it tests all admitted patients, including symptomatic patients with medical emergencies and patients with scheduled surgeries and procedures.
Cottage Health administers PCR tests only, as antibody testing is not recommended for use in COVID-19 diagnosis or management of acute patient care in Cottage hospitals, said Maria Zate, manager of Public Relations at Cottage.
Tests are collected and processed in-house by Pacific Diagnostic labs, which then also sends tests to the reference laboratories LabCorp and Sonic. “Depending on the platform and lab used, the result time for Cottage patients ranges from less than an hour to a few days,” Zate said, with the timing varying by case specifics, including symptoms.
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