(Story by Ruth Cummins, UMMC)
The University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) is leading an effort to address the state’s community COVID-19 outbreak by offering triage for symptoms via a new smartphone telehealth app and collection of testing samples at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds.
Residents who believe they have symptoms of the virus must start the triage process beginning Monday by using the free app, C Spire Health UMMC Virtual COVID-19 Triage, created by the Medical Center and C Spire. The app is available for screening from 8 a.m.-8 p.m., seven days a week.
Only those triaged for risk through the app can take part in the collection of samples, at no cost, at the Fairgrounds beginning on Tuesday. They must arrive at their scheduled time and present an identification number given to them from the app. “This is not wide-open testing,” said Dr. LouAnn Woodward, UMMC’s vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine.
Individuals found by UMMC Center for Telehealth providers to be at high risk for infection will receive a next-day appointment at drive-through tents at the Fairgrounds. Hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m., seven days a week. No one will get out of their vehicle; providers wearing protective gear will come to their window and swab their noses to retrieve specimens for testing to be performed at the Mississippi State Department of Health.
UMMC will notify those tested of the results and give further instructions. Those without a smartphone showing symptoms and who want to be screened can call 601-496-7200. Anyone not experiencing symptoms is asked not to use the app or call.
App users determined to be at low risk for infection won’t receive an appointment for collection of specimens, but instead will receive instructions on social distancing, home isolation, and self-care – and told to call back if symptoms worsen.
The app is downloadable on March 23rd from the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store. Those who have already downloaded the existing C Spire Health telehealth app will need to make sure their app is updated Monday to reflect the UMMC Virtual COVID-19 Triage usage.
Dr. Jonathan Wilson, UMMC chief administrative officer, said the drive-through collection site leverages the Medical Center’s expertise in emergency services and telehealth to support a pressing health care need in the state.
The first day of screening on Tuesday won’t be perfect, he and other state medical leaders say. “There’s not a clear playbook for this. We are using best practices from around the country, and we will change and adapt as we go. We will continue as long as we have specimen collection materials and good weather,” Wilson said.
“We don’t have time to do a lot of practice runs. We need to do this sooner rather than later.”
“We are offering our disaster response experience and our state-of-the-art telehealth services to support the public health efforts of the Mississippi State Department of Health,” Wilson said. “This field collection site will help the Medical Center continue to function as a tertiary hospital to care for the sickest patients, rather than consume its resources taking care of low-acuity patients.”
How it will work: Users of the app will be placed in a virtual waiting room to be picked up by a provider. They’ll be asked if they have symptoms including cough, fever, shortness of breath or sore throat.
If they are found to be at high risk, they will receive a next-day appointment for collection of samples at the Fairgrounds. Plans call for specimens to be collected from 128 people per day, said Dr. Alan Jones, UMMC chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine. If those appointments fill, callers will be asked to try back the next day for screening and a potential appointment.
Appointment-holders will use only the High Street entrance, and they will follow clear signage under direction of troopers with the Mississippi Highway Patrol. Walk-ups and use of Uber, Lyft or other ride-sharing services are not allowed. C Spire will provide free Wi-Fi at the Fairgrounds to support the drive-through operation and the public.
With the number of confirmed cases in the state up to 80 on Friday and one death, the outbreak is fast worsening, Woodward said.
“I promised to you and others earlier this week that we would bring to bear the full resources of our academic medical center for this,” Woodward said to media during an afternoon news conference.
That includes swift development of testing technology by UMMC’s scientists, a task with the capabilities of an academic medical center with full research capabilities, said Dr. Richard Summers, associate vice chancellor for research. It’s hoped a test will be ready for use at UMMC in the next 10 days or so, Woodward said.
The UMMC-led effort is a public-private initiative. The app’s development was coordinated by UMMC, CSpire and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. The drive-through field collection site is coordinated through UMMC, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, MSDH, the state Department of Agriculture and Commerce, the state Department of Transportation and the state Department of Public Safety. C Spire will provide free Wi-Fi at the Fairgrounds to support the drive-through operation and the public.
The offices of Gov. Tate Reeves and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann are among the entities supporting the app and field collection.
“As a Mississippi-based telecommunications and technology company, we care about our employees, our customers and the people of the Magnolia State,” said Hu Meena, president and CEO of C Spire. “C Spire is prepared to do whatever it takes to help our state respond to and recover from this devastating public health crisis.”
“In times like these, communications apps and technologies are a critical lifeline for our schools, our churches, our state and nation to rely on.”
“UMMC’s initiative is a great example of the joint effort between state agencies, the Institutions of Higher Learning, and hospitals as we respond and ultimately win the fight against COVID-19,” said MEMA Director Greg Michel.
The app’s overarching purpose and that of the field collection is to provide quick and substantially increased access to testing, Jones said. ”UMMC and its partners are poised to provide … an unprecedented response. Our desire is that this telehealth option fills an important need for the citizens of this state, and that it answers their questions and concerns about this pandemic.”
“This is a somber time for Mississippians with our first COVID-19 death yesterday and the marked increase in cases we reported today,” said Dr. Thomas Dobbs, state health officer. “We’re going to see a lot more cases. We’re at the front end of this thing.”
“We now have significant community-wide transmission, and that is why these type of mobile rapid testing centers are important. They allow testing of individuals while protecting the health worker. “
Metro-area health systems including Baptist Hospital and St. Dominic Hospital plan to take part in some way in the process.
Andy Gipson, the Agriculture and Commerce commissioner, called the Mississippi State Fairgrounds the “ideal location that will allow the public to drive up and get tested for the virus without spreading the disease through in-person contact.”
“There may be some dark days ahead, but we will defeat this. By working together and looking after one another, we will get through this crisis.”
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