AUSTIN (KXAN) — Following weeks of shortages in COVID-19 viral testing kits across the country and in Central Texas, the Austin area is beginning to receive more tests. New testing sites and testing options are being made available and laboratories are increasing their testing capacity as well.

Last week Austin Public Health said it had received 1,000 test kits from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

To get tested at any of these testing sites, patients will need to first be screened and have a doctor referral. Each of the providers KXAN spoke with explained that patients will need to have a combination of symptoms and risk factors in order to qualify to be tested.

As Austin Public Health noted in a release Wednesday, private healthcare providers locally may be providing their own testing. Private healthcare providers will send their test results to laboratories and are required to report any positive results to appropriate government entities. For information on that kind of testing, you should contact your doctor’s office for further guidance.

Here’s what we learned about the available options in the Austin area when it comes to getting tested for the virus that causes COVID-19:

Austin- Travis County

As of last week, Austin Public Health explained that there are now 11 testing sites online in the area.

APH will not be releasing the locations of these testing sites. Patients can only be given the address if they are referred there by a doctor in order to prevent these sites from being overwhelmed.

APH explained that a patient’s first point of contact to get referred to one of these testings sites is either Austin Public Health or any local doctor — APH has a new tool that launched last Wednesday to streamline referrals to its testing centers.

This undated photo provided by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows CDC’s laboratory test kit for the new coronavirus. (CDC via AP)

Austin Public Health will then go through the list of referred patients and let them know if or when they should go to a testing site. Until patients in this process are contacted by Austin Public Health, they are advised to stay at home and self-distance.

“There is still a significant gap between the number of tests available and the number of people seeking a test,” APH said in a release. “The authority’s tests will therefore be prioritized for those who need them most – healthcare workers, hospital patients, individuals who live in nursing homes, and those at high risk of complications from the virus.”

An email from a city spokesperson on Monday explained that the city’s “capacity and ability to test is increasing daily and will continue to increase.”

APH says it has created a way to ensure EMS, fire and Police employees get tested at the earliest possible time at any of the 11 sites.

Tests coordinated through APH “will generate no bill for the patient” the department says. However, APH noted that private lab companies may charge for this testing.

These results can either be processed at a state lab or at private labs. APH said these test results can come back as quickly as 24 hours but typically take a few days to process.

Austin Public Health test site

Saturday, APH announced the opening of its first City of Austin and Travis-County run test collection point. This site is one of the eleven in total throughout the area. The department is not releasing the location of this site to protect patient privacy.

A city spokesperson explained that the hours at this site will vary by day. On Saturday, the site was open for six hours and tested 50 patients, the city said.

At this time, the APH location will focus on people who are sent there by referral and have an appointment. Anyone who arrives at the location without a referral will be told how they can get referred to qualify for testing.

In a release, APH noted that when it comes to who gets tested at this site, the department will use Texas Department of State Health Services criteria which prioritizes people who have a combination of symptoms and risk factors like travel, close contact with confirmed cases, or underlying health conditions. That means that having just one symptom or risk factor is not enough by itself for you to qualify for testing.

APH added that people who are at risk, are hospitalized, are healthcare workers, are first responders, or work in critical infrastructure will get priority with these tests.

APH gave the following guidelines for people who want to get tested:

  1. If you are exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms (fever, cough, shortness of breath), avoid the risk of spread at clinics and hospitals by using telehealth virtual visits (see a list of services here) or calling your health provider.
  2. Your physician will determine if there is another plausible diagnosis with similar symptoms (i.e. influenza). People with no insurance and no established provider experiencing Coronavirus-like symptoms should call CommUnityCare at 512-978-8775. CommUnityCare will triage people over the phone and send them to the appropriate location.
  3. For suspected COVID-19 cases, your doctor will fill out a form. Austin Public Health will use this information to assess risk and criteria to determine whether a test is appropriate. You will be notified whether you qualify for a test and will be provided with a test-site location. Until then, stay at home and self-distance.

Baylor Scott & White testing locations

The first testing sites to come to the Austin-area were drive-through locations run by Baylor Scott & White in Austin and Round Rock. BS&W noted that these sites may relocate.

In order to get tested at these sites, you must have a referral from a medical professional. BS&W established a questionnaire on its site to filter people into the e-visits necessary to get the green light for a COVID-19 test kit. In order to take the questionnaire, which BS&W says is free, you have to make a BS&W account.

The Baylor Scott & White Round Rock COVID-19 drive-through test facility. (KXAN Photo/ Andy Way).

Depending on your responses, you will have the option to have an e-visit with a BS&W medical team member. BS&W explained to KXAN that when patients sign up for an e-visit, they have to select why they are having the visit. Those patients who list COVID-19 symptoms as the reason for their visit will have their fees waived, BS&W said. Previously, patients may have been charged $40 upfront for these e-visits but BS&W made changes last week so that those with COVID-19 symptoms aren’t charged for their e-visits.

Patients will only be sent to one of the BS&W sites after they have had an e-visit with a BS&W medical team member who has determined the patient qualifies for COVID-19 testing.

Additionally, BS&W noted that while it seeks to bill insurance companies “for applicable testing associated with COVID-19” it expects that patient out-of-pocket costs related to COVID-19 testing will be waived by insurance companies.

“No patient deemed appropriate for a COVID-19 test by a Baylor Scott & White provider will be denied the test regardless of their ability to pay,” a statement from BS&W last week read.

Baylor Scott & White noted that healthcare providers are working to conserve testing for people who are most at risk. As a result, BS&W said that some patients may not be directed to take a COVID-19 test, even if they have some symptoms which could be COVID-19 related.

BS&W said that at the discretion of their care providers and in keeping with CDC guidelines, “patients who are experiencing mild symptoms suspected to be related to COVID-19 infection are given guidance to treat at home with rest and hydration and to take precautions for distancing and isolating from others, when possible.”

BS&W recommends that for anyone treating mild symptoms at home keep an eye out for emergency warning signs related to COVID-19 and to get medical attention immediately for any serious or concerning symptoms.

Ascension Seton

Ascension Seton says it has partnered with Austin Public Health and other local health agencies to set up “a number of drive-through testing centers across the communities [they] serve.” Those drive-through locations are only for people who are referred there by Ascension Seton providers or by local health authorities like Austin Public Health.

Patients can drive through the Ascension Seton test sites, remaining in their vehicles the entire time. Nurses at the site will collect a nasal swab from patients.

In an email, a spokesperson explained that these sites are designed so that patients will never have to leave their vehicles to be tested. At these testing sites, healthcare providers will be wearing personal protective equipment and be trained in how to use that equipment.

Ascension Seton says that they determine who can be tested at these sites based on the CDC guidelines. Those guidelines recommend that providers should look for symptoms of COVID-19 and also prioritize patients who are hospitalized, vulnerable populations like the elderly and immunocompromised, or healthcare workers who have been around confirmed cases or who have traveled to affected areas.

Ascension Texas has created a COVID-19 hotline which is available from 6 a.m. through midnight and staffed by triage nurses. You can reach the hotline at: 1-833-919-1680.

Ascension Seton also advises that patients with cold-like symptoms call ahead to their healthcare team before making an appointment in person. For patients unable to reach their physician, Ascension Seton says another option is calling the state public health COVID-19 hotline at 1-877-570-9779 .

Ascension Seton noted that they have virtual care options that allow patients to visit with a doctor 24/7 and do not require insurance.

While Ascension Seton said their facilities have adequate equipment right now, they have expressed the need for more testing kits. Additionally, they acknowledge there is a national shortage of N-95 masks. As a result, Ascension Seton is expediting shipments directly from manufacturers, looking at alternate products, and transferring inventory between hospitals when appropriate.

Ascension Seton expects “supply chain disruption” in the coming months due to COVID-19. To counteract that, they are storing equipment in secure locations and trying to conserve equipment.

UT Health Austin (Dell Medical School)

Austin Public Health said it has test collection sites through a public-private partnership with UT Health Austin, the clinical practice of Dell Medical School.

A spokesperson for Dell Medical School said that if you have a fever, cough, shortness of breath, or have come into close contact with a person diagnosed with or suspected to have COVID-19 prior to your appointment, call 1-833-UT-CARES (1-833-882-2737) and contact the UT Health Austin staff.

St. David’s

Austin Public Health says it has test collection sites through a public-private partnership with St. David’s. A spokesperson for St. David’s HealthCare explained that they are deferring all questions about testing and testing criteria to Austin Public Health.

Private Practices

Healthcare providers in private practice can also acquire these tests and coordinate testing.

Dr. Brynna Connor, who has a private practice in family medicine in Lakeway, has obtained some COVID-19 tests through a lab she works with. Connor explained that not everyone who wants to take the test is qualified to take one. She added that everyone who requests a test doesn’t necessarily need to take one.

“That is because nationwide we have a shortage of the COVID tests, there are many practices choosing not to do the [COVID-19] testing in their office because they don’t have enough personal protective equipment,” Connor explained.

She said that many practices are referring their patients to other entities or sending them to Austin Public Health’s new surveillance and referral tool. Connor explained that APH has alerted every physician in Travis County on how to enroll their patients in this surveillance program.

“I have had several patients successfully be contacted by the Austin Public Health Department and go through testing,” she explained. “We went through the enrollment tool together it takes less than ten minutes but it has to be done with your doctor.”

In addition to helping her patients through the APH process, Connor was also able to secure five testing kits about two weeks ago and was able to acquire more testing kits on Monday. She said her office has a waiting list of people who want to know when test kits are available.

Like Austin Public Health, Connor only gives tests to people who are experiencing a combination of risk factors. She explained that someone who has symptoms typical of COVID-19 and has also been in contact with someone who has a confirmed case of COVID-19 would be more likely to have the virus than someone with just one of those factors. Connor tries to make sure that her patients have the same chance of getting a COVID-19 test whether they go directly through her office or through Austin Public Health.

“Ethically, as a physician here in Travis County, I have an obligation to make sure we are conserving resources due to public health,” she said.

Another factor in whether Connor recommends a COVID-19 test to patients is whether getting a positive test result would change their “management” or their plan for staying healthy.

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

“If they are otherwise healthy and their symptoms are mild and testing them and having a positive test is not going to change [their] management, then I am not encouraging them to get tested,” Connor said.

For those patients who fear they may need to get tested for COVID-19, Connors’s advice is to “call your doctor and ask them what you need to do.”

She added that many practices, including her own, are offering telemedicine appointments to minimize any potential risk.

State resources

Last week a spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) explained that there are nine public health labs in the state testing for COVID-19. These labs combined can test 600 specimens per day.

“As expected, however, the big increase in testing has been by private labs, which have increased their capacity by thousands per day,” noted Chris Van Deusen, director of media relations for DSHS.

A COVID-19 Viral test kit. Photo Courtesy. Dr. Brynna Connor.

Van Deusen shared that the Austin lab is now able to test up to 150 people per day. This is an increase from March 11, when Austin Public Health said that the lab could test up to 25 samples a day at that point.

Van Deusen attributed this increase in capacity at the Austin lab to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changing its requirement from requiring two swabs (one nasal and one oral) to just one swab (nasal). Additionally, DSHS got federal approval to begin using automated equipment to help with the testing process.

At a press briefing Sunday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott acknowledged that the state still does not have the amount of COVID-19 testing supplies or personal protective equipment for medical staff to meet the need in the state.

“We have the money for it but the supplies are not available for us to be able to purchase,” Abbott said. “We are asking the federal government to accelerate production and supply of personal protection equipment and COVID testing equipment.”