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Regional Hospital Drive-Thru Testing for COVID, Hopes to Test 10% of Western Alaska

The COVID-19 testing drive-thru tent outside the Norton Sound Regional Hospital. Photo from Reba Lean, NSHC (2020).

Widespread COVID-19 testing is now available for asymptomatic people in the Norton Sound region. Norton Sound Health Corporation (NSHC) is reporting that they have 800 tests available for the region.

KNOM’s Emily Hofstaedter goes through the drive-thru test in Nome to find out what she and other patients can expect.

KNOM’s JoJo Phillips and I have decided to get tested for COVID-19. Neither of us are feeling sick or exhibiting symptoms of the disease. We walk into a big blue and white tent set up in the parking lot of the Norton Sound Regional Hospital in Nome. It’s decorated with temporary hardwood floors, comfy chairs for guests, and it’s heated.

Helen Eningowuk with NSHC prepares a swab test at the drive-thru testing site in Nome. Photo from JoJo Phillips, KNOM (2020)

Helen Eningowuk, a health aide, greets us. She hands us forms to fill out with our names and contact information on a clipboard. 

April 30th is the first day that Norton Sound Health Corporation started testing Nome’s general population of asymptomatic people for COVID-19, meaning individuals that don’t feel sick. There are two options for testing at the outdoor tent. You can walk-in, just like we did, or go to the other side of the tent for drive-thru testing.

First, we try the walk-in test. Eningowuk opens the test swab from the sealed packaging and explains what we can expect.

It’s going along the septum and I’m going to twist a little bit. And I’m going to go on both sides [of the nose]. You’re going to probably tear up and I’ve got some tissue right here if you need some.”

The swab used at the walk-in tent in Nome is tested by the rapid test machine. That requires a nostril swab and doesn’t need to go all the way up the nose to the back of the throat, like the way some COVID-19 tests do.

Different test machines require different swabs as Dr. Mark Peterson, NSHC Medical Director explained to tribal leaders during a recent NSHC conference call.

KNOM’s Jojo Phillips gets the test before me. He sneezes as Eningowuk withdraws the swab, describing it as feeling, “like something was tickling my brain.”

And now for the drive-thru test. It’s the same kind of test swab as before but the big difference is that the nurse doesn’t administer the test. In this case the patient sticks the swab up their own nose.

Eningowuk gets busy helping three other patients who have walked into the clinic, so I sit in the car and do my best on my own.

KNOM’s Emily Hofstaedter: Am I sticking it up high enough?

KNOM’s JoJo Phillips: You’ve got to be as close to your septum as possible. (Emily is coughing and sputtering) I think you’re making a face that suggests that you are.

KNOM’s Emily Hofstaedter: I think I’m good

After removing the swab from my own nose, I stick it into a plastic ziplock bag, Eningowuk takes it from me, and then we’re free to drive away. 

KNOM’s Emily Hofstaedter turns in her swab test at the drive-thru test site at Norton Sound Regional Hospital. Photo from JoJo Phillips, KNOM (2020).

NSHC’s Peterson says that they would like to see 10% of the Bering Strait region’s population get tested. These tests give the hospital and the state a better idea of who is carrying the disease caused by the coronavirus and potentially passing it to others, even if they don’t feel sick.

If you’re in the region, outside of Nome, and want to be tested for COVID-19, NSHC says you can call your local village clinic to arrange a test with the health aide.

The walk-up tent and drive-thru at the Nome hospital is open 10am-2pm Monday thru Friday. The whole process of getting tested takes about ten minutes. While getting a swab in the nose isn’t comfortable, KNOM’s Jojo Phillips agrees that it doesn’t hurt.

“Just the thought of it being a test makes me nervous. But there was never any concern… even when they were sticking rods up my face.”

Within two hours of getting the swab done, we both got phone calls confirming we tested negative for COVID-19.

As of this report, NSHC is reporting no active cases of COVID-19 in the Bering Strait region.  The region has only had one confirmed case of the disease and that patient was declared recovered on April 20th.

As of May 1st, NSHC reports that 576 tests have been completed and 100 tests were still pending. The region had 475 negative cases.

Even though there are currently no active cases, NSHC and city leaders want people to understand that they shouldn’t be complacent. Because the virus has a long incubation period, up to 14 days, someone could test negative even if they have COVID-19 present in their body.

Nome City Manager Glenn Steckman says they would like to make the rapid test available at the local airport, but that process is still being coordinated. Anyone entering Nome is still required to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Image at top: From left to right the tent set-up crew, including medical staff and Village Facilities Maintenance team: Dr. Mark Peterson, Dr. Timothy Lemaire, Dr. Terrence O’Malia, Brendon Tran, Dr. Gary Kulka, Louis Murphy, Chase Gray, James Musich, and Charlie Peterson. Photo courtesy of Reba Lean, NSHC (2020).

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