Total Care 280 offers testing for COVID-19

HOOVER – Dr. Amy Illescas stands outside Total Care 280 each morning in full protective gear, hoping to avoid catching the novel coronavirus that is sweeping across the nation while still testing people in an effort to stop that spread.

Many health care facilities are hoping to avoid visits from people with COVID-19, but Illescas and her staff have set up a system to deliver hundreds of tests while keeping themselves and their other patients safe.

“We are not advertising and touting that we are doing this,” Illescas said. “I just want it to be available to anybody who is scared and doesn’t know where to go. I have elderly parents, and to think that a doctor would say, ‘Don’t come here, go to the ER,’ it made me feel terrible to know that there’s so much fear out there.”

So Illescas swabs noses beginning at 6:30 a.m. each morning, until “we fall over dead from exhaustion”—at least 1 p.m., weather permitting, she said.

Testing at Total Care 280 began Monday, March 16. The same swabs that are used for throat cultures are instead used nasally to test for the coronavirus.

The samples are placed in a tube with liquid in the bottom that preserves the mucus, and then sent to a laboratory, which uses chemicals to break down the material and identify molecular markers that are unique to the virus.

At the beginning of the week, testing was only recommended for people who had symptoms, such as fever and cough—a difficult standard because half of those with coronavirus do not show symptoms in the first week of the illness.

“It was a very, very difficult pattern to establish whether a person was worthy or not worthy,” Illescas said. “We need a screening test and not a diagnostic test.”

Then, testers were asked to also test for flu to ensure the person did not have a more common illness.

By Wednesday, March 18, officials said testing could be performed on any patient the doctor deemed had reason to be tested.

About 200 tests have been conducted at Total Care 280, Illesca said, with results back on about a third of those—and two confirmed positives.

Some results have come back as quickly as 24 hours; some samples are going on a week with no results.

“Which lab is running them and how inundated they are determines when we get them back,” she said.

Every precaution is being taken at Total Care 280 to prevent the spread of the virus: The tests are conducted curbside—patients are swabbed without leaving their vehicles. There is no physical contact. Only Illesca handles the actual swabbing; an assistant stands behind her and does not come near the patient.

More phone visits have been conducted so those who do not have COVID-19 can receive the help they need without having to actually go in to the office.

Though it has been a sacrifice in many ways, including having to exercise extra caution around her children, Illesca said she thought it was important to offer testing.

“I saw an email from another practice asking patients not to come in if they are sick, but then ERs would be inundated, the co-pays are higher, so we decided to try to forge a new path while still giving good care to people,” she said.

Once the pandemic is over, the doctor said she hopes an important lesson can be learned: the importance of washing hands and other steps to avoid the spread of disease.

“We have to remember because we don’t know when the next superbug is going to come,” Illesca said. “This is just a glimpse of what the future could look like as the world keeps getting smaller.”