Editor’s Note: Since this article was published June 8, CommUnityCare has updated its guidelines to say it is focusing on testing those without insurance who are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. It has the latest information on testing on its website.
AUSTIN (KXAN) — Soon, more people living in the Austin area will be able to find out if they have COVID-19 even if they aren’t showing any symptoms.
Central Health-affiliated CommUnityCare announced Monday it will provide “free COVID-19 testing for individuals with no symptoms of coronavirus to help slow the spread of the disease.”
The news release said in part:
“CommUnityCare’s efforts are part of a nationwide program to expand testing to asymptomatic individuals. An asymptomatic carrier is someone who has contracted the virus but isn’t showing any symptoms of the disease. Anyone who has been in contact with a carrier of the virus is at risk and should be tested even if they are not feeling sick or showing any symptoms, as they can then transmit the virus to anyone they come into contact with.”
According to CommUnityCare, “no appointment or referral is required at the drive-up locations, and no one arriving for testing will be asked for residency status.”
“I think one of the aspects that we really wanted to concentrate on is removing any kind of barrier,” explained Dr. Alan Schalscha, Chief Medical Officer. “For many of the patients that we care for, they don’t have access to a smartphone, they don’t have a home computer.”
He said the total number of positive cases alone doesn’t tell you about the severity of the outbreak.
“There are more positive diagnoses of COVID because there’s more testing,” said Schalscha.
For the severity, he said, you also have to look at hospitalizations and how many people are on ventilators.
Schalscha told KXAN increased testing helps to provide information.
“The more we test, the more we can educate people. The more we can educate people, more we can keep people in their home environments and out of kind of the public environment, and then decrease the spread of the disease.”
Registered Nurse Debbie Lowndes said knowing whether you have the virus is important.
“It’s to their benefit, but more importantly, it’s to the rest of the community’s benefit or to their family benefit,” she said. “Somebody doesn’t know they have the virus and they’re walking around with it, or hugging their children, then they can potentially be passing that virus on.”
Schalscha added, “The virus is spread, actually when people are either pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic. And some of the studies that I’ve reviewed actually showed that some of the highest rates of viral spread are the day before the symptoms present.”
The Chief Medical Officer said stopping the virus early can also help the Hispanic community, which Austin Public Health data has shown, is more severely impacted by COVID-19.
Paulette Blanc with MEASURE, a local advocacy group, said expanded testing is a good step.
“That’ll give people if they are positive if they start to get symptoms, they can then seek care quicker versus waiting, and that delay can impact the outcomes, and they also now have more time to protect their families and loved ones,” she said.
MEASURE recently did a survey and found that people working at essential businesses were extremely concerned about contracting the virus as well as not being able to get tested.
Blanc said increased testing is one of many improvements needed.
“There are things like sick leave that a lot of these communities don’t have access to because of the types of jobs,” she told KXAN. “So if you are sick, you may not have the option to stay home, quarantine and take care of yourself. You’re still having to go to work, and that also affects the community at large.”
CommUnityCare said testing is offered at all of its health center locations to any patient with an appointment.
They also operate seven public testing sites: Hancock Center in Austin, Austin’s Colony/Hornsby Bend, Colony Park, Del Valle, Dove Springs, Manor, and Pflugerville. They said these testing sites are open on a rotating schedule, Monday through Saturday. CUC patients and non-patients alike may go to any of the drive up testing sites and request a test whether they have COVID-19 symptoms or not.