Austin hopes to allow people to sign up for COVID-19 testing without physician referral


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin Public Health Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said he is “hopeful this week to move to a public-driven sign up” for COVID-19 testing. His comments were shared at Tuesday’s meeting for Austin City Council’s work session.

Currently, people need to be referred by a doctor to get tested, Austin Public Health explained. The existing system works so that physicians fill out a form for their patients who then get contacted by APH for testing.

But APH explained in an email, “hopefully, in the near future, we can open this survey up to everyone in the community, no referrals needed.”

“We will still need to prioritize testing as we still need more PPE and testing kits but at least people can be queued in the system and contacted if/when supplies are available,” APH continued in the email.

APH health authorities said they will prioritize the elderly, those with underlying health conditions and those who work in healthcare and other critical infrastructure fields.

APH believes this change will give the department an understanding of the demand for tests and highlight who needs the tests versus simply wanting them.

A COVID-19 viral test kit at the office of Austin area Dr. Brynna Connor. (Photo Courtesy Dr. Brynna Connor).

“We can, therefore, increase capacity by being more efficient with the tests we have available,” APH said.

Dr. Escott said of the COVID-19 tests administered in Austin-Travis County, 8-10% are coming back with positive results. He said APH is hoping to provide additional data related to local COVID-19 testing by the end of the week.

The region still has limited testing capacity, Dr. Escott said, and there isn’t enough testing available for asymptomatic people unless they are among a potential cluster of cases.

“We are hopeful that we will have increased testing available locally in the near future as well as the Abbott rapid test,” said Escott, referring to a test from medical device maker Abbott which would give test results in a matter of minutes. Currently, in the Austin area, it takes between 24 to 48 hours to get COVID-19 test results back, Escott said.

Jen Samp, a spokesperson with Austin Public Health, shared the following statement with KXAN:

“This is a truly unprecedented time. We are working against time [and] at the same time working with new technology. We don’t expect this to be perfect at the start, but we expect this to be an innovative way of getting people the tests they need. In the meantime, test or no test: we are in a community spread with evidence of people being asymptomatic. We all need to treat ourselves and others as if we already have the virus and take proactive personal measures to stop the spread.”

Mariana Alves, who has been sick for several weeks but wasn’t been able to obtain a test due to limited supplies, said an option to allow her to get in line would be helpful.

The 22-year-old UT graduate has been bed-ridden for 18 days, experiencing headaches, body aches and severe shortness of breath.

“I was so tired that getting up from my bed to walk to my bathroom door, I’d be completely out of breath,” Alves said. “This is completely different than anything I’ve ever had before.”

“It’s exhausting to talk on the phone, it’s exhausting to beg people to give you a test. I think that people are probably not calling or not caring because they know that there is no chance that they are going to get tested anyway.”

Mariana Alves, denied a COVID-19 test

Doctors said they like the idea, too. Dr. Sharon Hausman-Cohen, a family practioner in Austin, said it will be a relief on her office’s workload.

“That’s a fine strategy if there are enough test kits and the test kits are not a burden on the healthcare system,” Dr. Hausman Cohen said.

She hopes to one day see a system where approved patients can administer the test themselves from home.

“It doesn’t mean that the doctor can’t recommend that they do the test, but its not that difficult to do a nasal swab or a throat swab,” Dr. Hausman-Cohen said.

While Austin Public Health officials hope the survey is ready to go by the end of the week, it may take some time as they work through initial technological challenges of this pilot program.

Continue checking in with KXAN for the latest updates.

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