Starting Friday, University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health will begin collecting samples from potential COVID-19 patients for testing in its emergency room parking lot in Bel Air, and patients won’t even need to leave their cars, the organization announced Thursday.
Crucially, the sample collection will not be a walk-in service; only those referred by a physician will be able to go to the Upper Chesapeake Medical Center parking lot and submit a nose-swab. For everyone’s safety, a document distributed to physicians says, it is important for the people being tested to stay in their vehicles.
The service will begin Friday and, in subsequent weeks, be open Monday, Wednesday and Thursdays.
Workers will take a swab of a patient’s nose — no blood drawn or needles used. Samples will be collected at UCH’s mobile operations van and tested by Lab Corp, a private company.
Upper Chesapeake Medical Center was the first hospital in the University of Maryland Medical System ready to begin this sort of program, said Martha Mallonee, director of corporate communications for UCH. “What we learn, we will share with our larger UMMS team,” she said in an email.
In the meantime, Dr. Faheem Younus, chief of quality for UCH, urged the community to stay calm and take the necessary steps to combat the novel coronavirus’ spread.
“It’s an evolving, changing situation and we should not panic,” Younus said.
Because many coronovirus symptoms are similar to seasonal illnesses, Younus said it is important to go through the proper, orderly channels and be evaluated by a doctor instead of self-diagnosing, showing up to the hospital or panicking.
The testing also signals a shift in response to the virus, Younus said. As results come in, medical officials can collect data and get a better picture of the widespread respiratory illness. From there, he said, they can develop a plan.
"We are still seeing a lot of seasonal viruses, so if someone has a fever or cough, they should not assume it is COVID-19,” he said. “This service will provide them that objective answer.”
Younus said the hospital is taking every step it can to protect patients and its own staff. That may be disquieting for some who visit the hospital and see security guards in protective masks, but it is to ensure safety, Younus said.
The hospital is also restricting its visitation policy in response to the virus. Now, only one visitor per person will be allowed in the hospital at a time, and all visitors must be over 18, unless “they are parents of hospitalized children," the UCH’s website states.
COVID-19 is an aggressive respiratory virus in the family of SARS that was first recorded in Wuhan, China, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The virus has sickened over 125,000 and killed more than 4,600 people globally since its discovery, leading the World Health Organization to declare it a pandemic Wednesday.
There are 1,215 reported cases in the U.S., according to the CDC — 12 of which are in Maryland, including the state’s first case unrelated to travel, which Gov. Larry Hogan announced Thursday.
Thirty-six deaths have been associated with the virus in the U.S. Most of the casualties and cases are in China.
Though SARS and MERS boast higher mortality rates than COVID-19, those numbers need to be put in context, Younus said. They were far less aggressive than COVID-19, which has through sheer number of infected, already killed more than either of its sibling viruses.
Harford County Executive Barry Glassman reported Monday that an 86-year-old woman tested positive for the virus after traveling abroad. Hogan said she had returned with the virus from Turkey — a claim the Turkish government disputes. The woman is being treated at an undisclosed hospital, and county health officials said it was unlikely she spread the virus to anyone locally.
Concerns for the malady have rippled throughout the world and Harford County, where some stores have been nearly cleaned out of hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and bleach. The situation in many other retail stores across the world is similar.
Younus said this kind of frantic preparation is not wholly warranted. People should stock up on prescribed medicine, but short of having a coronavirus patient living in your home, excessive cleaning is not necessary.
"As long as you do not have a patient or a family member with COVID in your home, you do not need to go crazy disinfecting every doorknob [or surface],” Younus said. “It is good to be prepared, but there is a huge difference between being prepared and causing panic.”
People who are older, have compromised immune systems or recurring medical issues are the most at risk for a serious infection, the CDC’s website states.
The best thing to do, Younus said, is to stay home when sick and keep apprised of happenings.
Communication and social distancing, the likes of which the Chinese and South Korean governments have been practicing, are the most efficient ways of halting the virus’ spread. The incubation period for the virus is between two and nine days, averaging out to five days between infection and showing symptoms.
Younus said the virus may be around for a prolonged time. To that end, it is possible that many people may know somebody who will eventually be infected. The best course of action is to stay away from someone who is sick, but just because a person interacts with a carrier of the virus does not automatically mean they are infected.
"If you were exposed to someone who was exposed to someone with COVID, that is not exposure,” he said. "Very few people will have what we call primary exposure, and a lot of people will know someone who had exposure.”
The virus has also fueled some suspicions of Asian-Americans, which should be roundly discounted, Younus said. That fallacious suspicion only incites fear and panic, which could facilitate the virus’ spread.
"People who may look Asian are still American. We should not become suspicious of each other,” he said. “This is the strategy of this virus. We need to remain calm.”