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With long emergency department waits, Novant Health brings back drive-thru COVID testing

SALISBURY — With an overwhelmed emergency department and long waits for COVID-19 tests, Novant Health on Wednesday returned to an early pandemic staple — drive-thru testing.

The COVID-19 testing site, near the intersection of Mocksville Avenue and Woodson Street, provides results in two to three days. It tested 71 people on its first day. Its resurgence was spurred by an already busy emergency department at Rowan Medical Center facing four- or five-hour wait times just for COVID-19 testing, said Desiree Dunston, a senior director of professional and support services.

“We started to see an increase in our (emergency department) volume with patients who would typically come to the EDs for emergencies and also an uptick for residents just to get tested,” Dunston said. “And what was happening, they were waiting four, five hours just to be seen, just to get tested. So, when we started to see an increase in that volume, we decided across Novant Health to start reopening our testing centers just to take the volume off of our EDs.”

People only seeking a COVID-19 test shouldn’t wait for four or five hours, she said.

Dunston said urgent care clinics are also seeing high volumes of patients.

Rowan Medical Center President and COO Gary Blabon said the hospital hasn’t reached its capacity, but it’s like most across the state in seeing a high percentage of beds in use. Last week, it hit a high for number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized, he said.

“We’re still open. We’re still going to treat the critically ill, high-need patients,” Blabon said. “We are trying to offload some of our (emergency department) because we are still having traumas come in, heart attacks and strokes, people that need medical care emergently. … It’s great being part of a big health care system because we can offload some patients to Winston-Salem or to Charlotte.”

In Rowan County, more than 90% of people hospitalized, 95% of those in critical care and 97% of people on ventilators are unvaccinated, Blabon said. With the delta variant, people have proven to be more sick than previous iterations of the virus, he said.

Health officials, including Blabon and Dunston, say vaccinations are the best tool for people to protect themselves against severe illness or death. While Rowan is better than many counties in the state for its percentage of people fully vaccinated, it’s still below 50%.

She said vaccine hesitancy is the reason why Rowan County finds itself among the worst in the state for any number of metrics. Blabon said local leaders and “any type of leadership who’s got the ear of anyone” need to talk about the importance of being vaccinated against COVID-19. Dunston said people need to ensure teenagers and young adults are vaccinated, too, to stop the spread.

Rowan County stands out for being near the top of North Carolina’s 100 counties for positive cases per capita. Blabon said the county also leads the state in percentage of tests returning positive. In the previous two weeks, 22.3% of tests have returned positive, producing 2,738 new cases.

“That’s not the race we want to win,” Dunston said.

After adding several new deaths, Rowan County on Wednesday overtook Buncombe County for seventh in the state. Rowan County has 353 deaths since the start of the pandemic. Buncombe County has 351.

Now that the calendar is turning to fall, Blabon and Dunston expressed concern about a further spike from an already high point for community spread. That could set new records for hospitalizations, cases and deaths from COVID-19. There was a relatively mild flu season in last year because people wore masks and practice precautions such as social distancing and washing their hands, but a spike in flu cases is another worry, Blabon said.

“We’re hoping that we are at a peak right now and that we will see a downward trend,” Blabon said.

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