Registered nurse Amy Hortert is truly on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic. She's one of 16 medical personnel who volunteered to conduct COVID-19 tests in the Butler Memorial Hospital's Brady Street parking lot.
Started on St. Patrick's Day, the tests are available from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.
But, Hortert said, people worried they might have been exposed to the virus can't just show up.
“You have to have a physician's order emailed or faxed (to be scheduled for a test),” Hortert said. Drop-ins will be turned away.
Hortert, who's been a nurse for 25 years, said the testing was set up by Dr. Elliot Smith, and Hortert makes up the schedule that has two volunteers a day — drawn from doctors, nurses physicians' assistants and nurse practitioners — manning the test site.
At the beginning, she said, the site was conducting 150 tests a day. It's since dropped to 65 to 80 a day. The test itself is a nasal swabbing conducted in a tent in the parking lot.
“A small swab with fibers on the end of a long plastic probe is inserted into one nostril,” she said.
It's placed in the nasopharynx, the upper part of the throat behind the nose, parallel to the roof of the mouth.
“The swab stays in for 30 seconds, 15 seconds still and it's rotated for 15 seconds,” Hortert said.
“It's uncomfortable. It can cause people's eyes to water or make people cough and sneeze,” she said.
Still, she added, “People are appreciative of the effort. They want to know if they have the virus or not.”
The swab is placed in a specimen tube, capped off and placed in a specimen bag in a cooler.
The coolers are switched out every hour. Swabs are sent to a Quest Diagnostics laboratory in Pittsburgh. The swabs are checked to see for the COVID-19 virus' RNA, ribonucleic acid, a nucleic acid carrying the genetic information for the virus.
If the test is positive, the donor has been exposed to the COVID-19 virus.
Hortert said test results usually come back in two days.
“The drawback of the tests is we aren't sure yet how long the substance is present in the nasopharynx,” she said.
“Presence of the RNA doesn't mean they are infectious. The recommendation is they go into 14-day quarantine and monitor themselves for symptoms,” Hortert said.
The symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath. Older people can experience a loss of smell and taste. Other symptoms may include nausea and diarrhea.
In the future, medical professionals hope to be able to provide an anti-body test to determine who has been exposed to the virus and recovered.
That test would involve drawing a tube of blood.
“It's definitely under consideration. Tests are under consideration, but they must be reliable,” Hortert said.
As it is, the virus testing will continue.
“Everyone has been really appreciative and helpful,” Hortert said. “Everyone's really anxious. What we are going through now is unprecedented.”
Doctors can email orders for tests for exposure to the virus to firstname.lastname@example.org.