POTTSTOWN — While the parking lot of the Montgomery County Health Clinic in Pottstown sat mostly vacant Friday morning, it was only a matter of time before the area would soon turn into a flurry of activity.

Megan Young, public health emergency preparedness coordinator for the Montgomery County Office of Public Health, is tasked with overseeing COVID-19 testing operations for this location, and five others across the county, in the midst of a pandemic.

“We were completely booked today in 15 minutes across all six sites,” she said.

As COVID-19 cases climb in Montgomery County, testing plays an important role in overall mitigation efforts.

Montgomery County Commissioners’ Dr. Valerie Arkoosh has been a proponent of testing throughout the course of the public health crisis.

“I urge people who either need to be tested or want to be tested to get tested,” Arkoosh said during a recent Montgomery County Board of Commissioners meeting.

COVID-19 cases climbing

As of 12:15 p.m. on Friday, 303 COVID-19 new cases were reported in Montgomery County, according to the county’s COVID-19 resources webpage. Additionally, 17,971 cases of the novel coronavirus, and 860 deaths have been recorded in Montgomery County since March 7.

Montgomery County experienced a 7.2 percent COVID-19 positivity rate for the period of Nov. 6 to Nov. 12, indicating an instance of “substantial transmission,” according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s COVID-19 Early Warning Monitoring System Dashboard.

The previous seven-day period, which occurred from Oct. 30 to Nov. 5, showed a 5.2 percent positivity rate. State health officials designated rates below 5 percent as figures showcasing a county's ability to suppress the virus.

“Rising numbers are always concerning to me. I would love to see them back in the 2 or 3 percent range, but that’s also where we’re at,” Young said. “We expected this, I hate to say. This is something that we as a county have been planning for. We knew the second wave was going to come and our goal has always been how do we respond to that second wave and what does the impact of that second wave look like?”

While Montgomery County’s positivity rate continues to rise, the area experienced a lower rates in recent months.

“One of the reasons we were able to keep our positivity rate as low as we did for as long as we did was because of available testing,” Young said. “The more we test the more we know where the virus is. The more we know where the virus is, the more we can respond to it.”

Montgomery County has satellite walk-up testing locations in Ardmore, Green Lane, Lansdale, Norristown, Pottstown and Willow Grove.

Funding for testing is made possible via the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, according to the Montgomery County COVID-19 testing webpage.

Increased interest in testing

Young said those vying for a time slot found that it has become increasingly difficult to secure a slot as demand continues to rise.

“We are hearing from a lot of folks because our appointments are maxing out so fast, they’re putting their information in, they’re going to click confirm for that appointment, and the appointment slot is gone,” she said.

“Literally it is like the hot potato of appointments,” she went on to say.

It’s something that Arkoosh is also very much aware of.

“We know that it is getting increasingly difficult to get a COVID-19 test scheduled here in the county,” Arkoosh said during a Montgomery County Board of Commissioners meeting Thursday. “We’re working to increase the capacity at our county testing sites in the very near future and we will announce that as soon as we are able to do so.”

While Young couldn’t comment on a specific timeline for a future expansion, she did confirm that it would be widespread, and substantial.

“It would be a dramatic increase, and it would be an increase across all of our sites, not just select ones,” Young said.

Currently, there’s capacity for 100 tests per day Monday through Friday at the Ardmore, Lansdale, Norristown, and Willow Grove sites. The Green Lane and Pottstown locations can accommodate 50 tests per day Monday through Friday, according to health officials.

Young added that she’d like to see “longer testing blocks” to accommodate more people interested in getting tested for the novel coronavirus.

“We’ve tried to be cognizant of the community, and understand that there’s kids that need to be tested outside of traditional hours; there’s people who are working, and maybe want to get tested after work who work the third shift and want to be tested in the morning,” Young said. “So we’ve tried to really kind of straddle our operational hours so we can try to meet the needs of as many people as possible.”

How does it work?

After receiving an appointment time slot, people getting tested are encouraged to head to the respective location at the designated time.

Unfortunately, due to the existing testing capacity, county satellite testing sites cannot accommodate people without an appointment, Young said.

Participants should check in with a registration staff member at the check-in window, and he or she will confirm the participant's information surrounding the appointment and insurance, if they opted to provide those details. Additionally, staff members will clarify contact information for receiving results following testing. There is also a “specimen handler” who is “responsible for putting [a] sticker on [a] tube,” ensuring that it’s “handled correctly,” Young said.

Young said the entire process takes between five and 10 minutes.

After the person is checked in, Young said they would then approach the testing window where a “swabbing instructor walks [the] client through [the] testing process.”

Young said the person getting tested would “peel back” the “swab,” place it “up the nostril until you hit resistance, swirl it twice, hold it for 15 seconds against the wall of the nose, pull it out, take a deep breath, sneeze if you have to, let your eyes stop watering and then you repeat the process on the other side.”

“The client then puts the swab, Q-Tip, into the fluid,” she said. “Our swabs are packed in saline.”

Once the test is in the tube and sealed up “nice and tight,” it’s packaged and placed “in a biohazard bag and it goes into the specimen box for transport to the lab.”

Montgomery County has a contract with Mako Medical Laboratories, LLC., of Raleigh, North Carolina. The agreement stipulates a commitment to turn around results in 36 hours.

Moreover, Young said the county’s six testing locations are also equipped with literature surrounding guidance while waiting for test results and if the test comes back positive.

The ranking health official urged people to “try to follow those quarantine guidelines” and “limit your exposure to other people” during the interim period. She added that it’s of “paramount importance” to wear a mask, practice social distance and use sanitizer.

“Especially if you’ve had a known exposure or you’re experiencing symptoms,” she said.

If a test yields a positive result, the participant can expect a call from the county’s contact tracing department, and they can provide a list of places and people they’ve recently been in contact with.

The county currently has 62 contact tracers, according to Arkoosh. However, due to increasing test results, she noted that “priority” for contact tracing is placed on people ages 18 years and younger, 65 years and older or those in a “community” or “household cluster.”

As county health officials continue to encourage testing, Young said families, older adults, those traveling, and others who may have been exposed to a COVID-19 positive are opting to get a COVID-19 test.

“We have really seen the gambit of people that are coming to be tested: all ages, all genders, ethnicities,” Young said. “It really is a good representation of the community that’s coming into be testing.”

Evolution of COVID-19 testing in Montco

When cases of the novel coronavirus were first reported locally back in March, county officials engineered drive-through testing sites — with assistance from federal agencies — at Temple University’s Ambler campus and Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell.

When no more federal resources were available for drive-through testing, county officials still “wanted to maintain that we provide consistent and reliable testing to the residents of the county,” Young said.

Citing accessibility, Young said that local health and safety leaders opted for a countywide walk-up testing model.

“We went with our six sites across the county that afford a little bit more flexibility for individuals that don’t drive because you don’t need a car to get tested at one of our sites,” she said.

While the “self swabbing process” began “in May,” Young said the satellite locations opened on July 6. The facilities are equipped with the required materials and roughly 24 staff members and a supervisor across the testing network.

Free COVID-19 testing is available for people of all ages who live, work or attend school in Montgomery County at the following times and locations:

  • Ardmore: 2-6 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and 12-4 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday at 114 W. Lancaster Ave. in Ardmore.
  • Green Lane: 4-6 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and 12-2 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday at 2144 Snyder Road in Green Lane.
  • Lansdale: 2-6 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and 12-4 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday at 421 W. Main St. in Lansdale.
  • Norristown: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and 1-5 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday at 1401 Dekalb St. in Norristown.
  • Pottstown: 12-2 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and 4-6 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday at 364 King St. in Pottstown.
  • Willow Grove: 12-4 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and 2-6 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday at 1678 Fairview Ave. in Willow Grove.

Those interested must make an appointment, and registration begins at 8:30 a.m. each day. To do so, visit www.montcopa.org/COVID-19, and click the “county testing information” tab, or call 610-970-2937. Spanish-speaking operators can also assist as well as translation resources for other languages.

‘Second wave’ arrives in Montco

As of Friday afternoon, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 11,650,817 total cases of the novel coronavirus and more than 251,000 total deaths nationwide.

“We know the second wave is here. We are aware of it,” Young said.

Here in Montgomery County, Young still emphasized the importance of testing.

“In my opinion, I think it is a crucial part of this response. It always has been, and it always will be,” Young said. “However ... it’s of level importance as the things like washing your hands, wearing your mask and maintaining social distancing.”

When reflecting on the COVID-19 mitigation efforts locally, Young said she’s learned a lot, and this experience is something that could serve well down the line as the pandemic continues to unfold.

“I really think that ... experiences like our drive though testing sites, [and] our walk-up testing sites are really gonna go a long way in making a vaccination campaign successful in Montgomery County,” she said.

@rachelravina on Twitter

Rachel Ravina is a journalist covering news and lifestyle features in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. She grew up in Blue Bell and graduated from Penn State. She's also a news enthusiast who is passionate about covering topics people want to read.

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