The last time Shaska Thomas was on a tour bus, she was taking her daughter to Mt. Vernon. Starting next week, she’ll spend her days on the same type of bus, this time testing Howard County residents for COVID-19.
Thomas, of Centennial Medical Group, was part of the group that brainstormed and developed a mobile COVID-19 test unit.
Starting Monday, the clinic will offer COVID-19 testing four days a week at four Howard County sites using the bus.
“This is not what you think of when you think health care,” Thomas said. “We have found a way to bring a concierge service to people.”
Connor Ferguson, Centennial Medical and First Call managing partner, came up with the idea after he opened mobile testing sites at the Howard County Fairgrounds and Merriweather Post Pavilion earlier on during the pandemic.
Through that process, Ferguson said he learned the protocols needed for mobile health care and saw firsthand the inequities surrounding testing and how much transportation issues affected those who needed testing.
“Its purpose is to get the bus places where people have transportation issues,” Ferguson said.
He said his goals are improving access to health care and lowering the costs of care for individuals. That’s why Ferguson said he self-funded the venture. He also enlisted local business owners Matt and Brad Eyre, of Eyre Bus Tour & Travel, to donate tour buses to the effort.
“We’ve never done something like this, we had the concept but we needed input on how to design it,” Brad Eyre said.
It took less than three weeks for mechanics at Eyre to retrograde the bus, Matt Eyre said. They needed the bus windows to be able to open for medical professionals to swab individuals out the window.
Howard County Times: Top stories Newsletter
Daily highlights from Howard County's number one source for local news.
On Friday, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball and members of his administration toured the bus seeing how it would operate. Individuals can walk up three steps and speak to a medical professional through the bus window, get swabbed and receive guidance through telehealth on a video screen. Individuals can also receive their results on site.
“The education of that is really important. Without the test result you don’t know how to properly address your issue,” Ferguson said. “People are more compliant when there’s a result right then.”
Thomas said this method of testing also helps to alleviate what she calls “white coat syndrome.” The bus is simple and approachable, she said, and it lessens the fears some people have of medical care.
“If people don’t have the resources it’s great to be able to help them, it’s uplifting,” Thomas said.
As they plan to expand the venture, the Eyre brothers have 10 to 15 buses available to use for mobile testing, depending on need. Eventually, they hope they’ll be able to vaccinate individuals from the bus, too. Ferguson said a corporate sponsorship program will help fund the future expansion of buses.
“This is being flexible and adapting, providing appropriate care using different strategies,” said Arvind Narasimhan, medical director of First Care Maple Lawn. “This year has helped us figure out we can do a lot more in health care if we’re willing to take a few chances here and there.”
Mobile COVID-19 testing sites
3 to 7 p.m. Mondays: Long Reach Village Center, 8775 Cloudleap Court, Columbia
3 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays: North Laurel Community Center, 9411 Whiskey Bottom Road, Laurel
3 to 7 p.m. Thursdays: Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks, 7120 Oakland Mills Road, Columbia
3 to 7 p.m. Fridays: Elkridge 50+ Senior Center, 6540 Washington Blvd., Elkridge