County, private practices offer more testing

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By ANTHONY FLORES

As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to increase throughout the state, testing sites are becoming more common. Williamson County is working on setting up several locations where citizens can access free testing.

Williamson County has gone over 2,000 active cases this week, with more than 100 hospitalized.

The Williamson County Office of Emergency Management, in partnership with the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM) and the Texas Military Department, set up three free testing sites this past week in Hutto, Jarrell and Taylor. Liberty Hill was initially one of the three cities planned to host a free testing site this week, but local testing was canceled late last week with no explanation provided by the City of Liberty Hill or Williamson County, until the Tuesday.

Liberty Hill Emergency Manager Casey Cobb said the City of Liberty Hill and the Williamson County and Cities Health District (WCCHD) made a decision to reschedule the COVID-19 testing.

“Within a week of the scheduled testing, TDEM made a change to the type of testing that would be performed and limited the quantity of tests to 250,” he said. “The City and the WCCHD is working together to schedule a new date in the near future to allow the WCCHD to come to Liberty Hill and perform the more accurate Nasal Swab testing and not have a limited amount of test that are made available.”

In his press conference announcing the new testing locations, Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell extended thanks to the school districts working with the county.

“I’d like to say a special thank you to our area schools,” he said. “Williamson County, during this pandemic, has worked strongly and well with the area schools to provide the best needs for adults and children in the community. This partnership is another example of a school district stepping up to partner with Williamson County to care for residents.”

Judge Gravell encouraged community members heading out to free testing sites throughout the county to come prepared for a potential wait.

“There could be some waits at the locations because it is walk-up testing,” he said. “You might be out in the sun, so I would encourage you to bring an umbrella to block the sun out and some sunscreen lotion if there are long lines.”

The TDEM, the National Guard, and the State of Texas are working together to cover the costs for testing.

“It’s a combined effort, the Texas Division of Emergency Management, Texas National Guard, and the State of Texas is taking care of the testing parts,” said Gravell. “The school districts are being kind and allowing us to use their properties, so that’s a significant contribution. The County, as well, on a much smaller level, is providing about $5,000 for meals, snacks, portable bathroom facilities, and hand washing stations at these locations.”

There are no requirements or restrictions at this time regarding who can be tested at pop-up sites around the county.

“The free testing is for symptomatic or asymptomatic individuals. There will be no appointments necessary,” said Gravell. “They will be walk-up site locations. This is testing provided for residents and those outside the county who choose walk-up testing.”

Williamson County is also working with the Family Emergency Room to provide additional testing opportunities. The county and Family Emergency Room announced a new contract to make testing more available to community members. Most insurance companies cover costs for COVID-19 testing, and anyone without insurance will have their tests covered by Williamson County.

“Williamson County is grateful to the team at Family Emergency Room for continuing to partner with the County to provide COVID testing to our community. Dr. Henry Higgins and his colleagues have stepped up and met a huge need in the community for COVID testing,” said Williamson County Pct. 2 Commissioner Cynthia Long.

The agreement between the county and Family Emergency Room will make scheduling for tests a more streamlined process. Two sites located in Cedar Park and one in Round Rock will all be utilized for testing.

“Family Emergency Room is pleased to partner with Williamson County to continue to provide COVID testing for our community,” said CEO of Family Emergency Room Dr. Henry Higgins. “With expanded testing locations at Whitestone, Lakeline, and Round Rock, and a more streamlined registration system, we hope to provide efficient, person-centered care to the residents of Williamson County.”

In Liberty Hill, Care First Clinic and Liberty Hill Physician Associates are also offering testing, but these tests are not necessarily free of charge.

Care First offers two different kinds of tests for active infections, a molecular test – the most commonly used test – and an antibody test.

“The molecular test we’re currently using is done through a saliva test,” said Care First Nurse Practitioner Kaela Thurman. “Patients will provide a saliva specimen. They’ll do that here at Care First.”

The saliva test is as accurate as the nasal swab test, and due to a lack of swabs available at the moment, Care First uses the saliva method. Once swabs become available, they plan to move back to that method. The turnaround for the saliva test results is four to five days after it’s received by the lab.

The antibody test people are most commonly aware of is mostly used to detect past infection. The one implemented by Care First tests for both current and past disease. The results of the antibody test take two to three days.

“The one that we have is a finger stick, so it’s a blood test,” said Thurman. “It tests for current and past infection. The nice thing about that test is that it’s done completely by the patient. You just come and pick the test up, so it’s a no-contact method. Then they mail it to the lab.”

Because the tests used at Care First are not the nationally used free tests, there is a cost to patients.

“For the spit test, it’s $89 in addition to the visit cost, regardless of whether you’re using cash pay or insured. You still also have to pay the lab, and that can be billed to insurance, or it’s an additional $100,” said Thurman. “For the finger stick test, it’s the cost of the visit plus $150, and that’s all-inclusive with no additional fees.”

Liberty Hill Physician Associates use the nasal swab test. Still, like Care First, it also comes with a price tag, but the group accepts insurance to pay for testing. Once a proof is completed and sent to the lab, results can take between three and seven days.

“We’re billing insurance because they see the doctor and the nurse practitioner,” said Liberty Hill Physician Associates office manager Shannon Smith. “They can get recommendations if they’re having symptoms. They can get prescriptions that can help with their symptoms versus the drive-thru places that are just swabbing and sending them on their way.”

Physician Associates hopes to have rapid results testing available in the next two weeks.

Testing is not recommended immediately for someone who has had contact with an infected individual. It’s recommended for those showing symptoms.

“If they have symptoms, then we can test them,” said Smith. “If they’ve just been exposed to somebody who tested positive, then it’s not recommended to test immediately. The CDC does recommend a 14-day quarantine, and if they do develop symptoms in that period, then we can test them. If we test too soon, it can be a false negative.”

Someone can get COVID-19 after being tested as a situation can change quickly in some cases.

“It can change overnight. We’ve done testing for employers that require it, and people will come out negative, and then the next week they develop symptoms and are positive,” said Smith. “The danger is they can spread the disease even before they have symptoms.”

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