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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — University of Florida Health is teaming up with The Villages® community, The Villages Health primary care network, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and state health and emergency management officials to begin offering large-scale testing for COVID-19 to residents of the region.
In this coordinated response to the coronavirus public health emergency, the initial efforts will involve a team of about 25 volunteer UF Health medical professionals together with Villages Health personnel to evaluate 400 to 500 people a day for the next five days who have preregistered for evaluation and potential testing starting Monday.
They will be assessed for symptoms, travel and exposure history and tested if they meet clinical criteria. Depending on the severity of their illness, they could potentially be further evaluated on-site or at a UF Health facility or sent home to self-quarantine while awaiting test results.
If they are concerned yet do not have symptoms nor meet standard clinical testing criteria, they will have the opportunity to sign up for a UF research study that enables them to receive testing as part of an epidemiological protocol known as community surveillance. The purpose of the study is to assess the degree of asymptomatic viral shedding at the onset of a COVID-19 outbreak. This is a valuable public health activity to identify people with early disease or asymptomatic shedding of virus.
The move is a first step toward offering the ability to screen for the novel coronavirus more expansively across the state.
“We are grateful that our residents have access to this advanced level of testing,” said Mark Morse, president of The Villages. “The collaboration between The Villages and UF Health is tremendously beneficial to the health of our community.”
Jeff Lowenkron, chief medical officer of The Villages Health, added, “Social distancing is critical to fighting this virus. The best way to guide this is having a better understanding of how pervasive COVID-19 is in the community. The only way to know that is more robust testing than we have been able to accomplish to date. We are glad to be engaged with this effort on behalf of our Villages Health patients along with our community as a whole. We know demand for testing will be much higher than we can deliver initially and we ask for patience as this ramps up.”
The news comes on the heels of the health system’s rollout Wednesday of in-house testing capabilities made possible through UF Health’s partnership with the Florida Department of Health, which has helped the health system obtain critical testing kits and supplies. This in-house capability greatly speeds the delivery of results for UF Health patients in Alachua, Marion, Duval, Lake and Sumter counties as Florida battles the growing health emergency, officials said.
Being able to do tests internally means UF Health physicians and patients can get results within 24 hours, far faster than other methods of testing outside the health system, officials say. Turnaround at commercial labs, for example, can take three to five days.
“We’re now able to identify patients much more quickly who have been exposed or have the virus,” said David Nelson, M.D., UF’s senior vice president for health affairs and president of UF Health. “And most important for us, we’ll be able to find out who needs to be quarantined and who their contacts were.”
The first UF Health patients were tested in-house using Centers for Disease Control and Prevention testing kits. UF Health will have the capability to run up to 800 tests daily, said Michael J. Clare-Salzler, M.D., a professor and chair of the department of pathology, immunology and laboratory medicine in the UF College of Medicine.
UF Health employees are working in shifts around the clock, seven days a week to ramp up testing, with additional technicians being trained to help meet demand, he said.
“We’re trying to assemble the tools that will help us to contain the pandemic and to minimize the number of people infected and minimize the number of infections that lead to severe disease or death,” he said.
However, the ability to meet testing demand is dependent on continuing to secure the supplies necessary to collect samples and process the testing kits, Clare-Salzler said.
“There is a national shortage for these supplies,” he said. “We are not the only group in the country that is having trouble getting all the things that we need to put together large-scale testing. Unless supply chains open up nationally, every lab in the country potentially has this problem. It’s going to be a constant juggling to stay ahead of this and also to keep up on the staffing. So, we’re facing major challenges.”
Clare-Salzler said the quick turnaround on test results is critical for UF Health to adequately respond to the crisis.
“When you’re trying to identify people who are infected, a three- or five-day turnaround is too long a time to help contain the infection in the community and know how to treat and manage our patients in house and our health care workforce who may also be sidelined.”
UF Health is working closely with the Florida Department of Health to ensure laboratories across the state are working together to maximize out impact and minimize the effects of the source limitations.
Testing will be available for UF Health patients through referrals at UF Health facilities across the health system, including Gainesville, Jacksonville, Leesburg, The Villages and elsewhere. Patients would still need to meet clinical criteria for testing. That generally includes having a fever, cough, shortness of breath and close contact with a COVID-19 case, or traveled internationally or by cruise ship. But criteria can be less stringent for symptomatic at-risk people, including the immunocompromised, those with diabetes or cancer and the elderly, among others.
“Many of our community practices can only test those that are being admitted to the hospital, where now we’ll have the capability to test people who we’re sending home with milder symptoms and have a fairly quick answer as to whether they are positive or negative,” Nelson said.