Beginning April 13, the Houston Health Department doubled its capacity for novel coronavirus testing at its two testing sites and is now administering 1,000 tests per day to people regardless of being symptomatic.
To test for COVID-19, samples are taken from the upper respiratory system, such as nasal secretions from the back of the nose or throat; the samples are then sent to laboratories where samples are analyzed for evidence of the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As previously reported by Community Impact Newspaper, the Greater Houston area offers a number of drive-thru testing sites for residents, including two new Harris County sites announced earlier April 16.
The Houston Health Department administers nasopharyngeal, or nasal, swab tests via a drive-thru service to anyone regardless of symptoms, according to Public Information Officer Porfirio Villarreal. To register for a test, patients are asked to call the department’s call center at 832-393-4220.
“We tell them to call because we don't want people just showing up and testing. ... We want to make sure that we have enough [tests],” Villarreal said. “We don't want people to flock to one [location], and so we make sure that there is enough space for them, especially now since we will open to anyone who wants the test.”
Testing site information is disclosed to patients after calling the center to manage traffic at both testing sites and minimize the risk of exposure. To better manage calls and reduce wait times, Villarreal said the health department expanded its call center staff from 12-15 people at the beginning of March to 50 staff members as of April 15.
Once at the drive-thru testing site, patients will receive a self-administered nasal swab test by a health care professional from the department, Villarreal said. After unwrapping the packaging containing the swab, patients then insert the swab midway into one nostril, rotate the swab twice and hold it in place for 15 seconds. The process is then repeated in the second nostril.
Patients then place the soft end of the swab into the provided tube, break off the remaining tip of the swab stick and close the tube with the provided tube cap. The sample is then returned to the health care professional, who will then seal the sample and place it in a refrigerated container before sending it to a lab to be analyzed; the lab will report results to the patient at a later time.
Villarreal said people who test with the health department can expect to receive results in about two to four days.
Labs will then report their findings to the local public health authorities in accordance with where the test subject lives. If a test is positive, epidemiologists with the health department will reach out to the test subject and begin contact tracing efforts, Villarreal explained.
“When somebody is confirmed with illness, then we get in touch with that person, and we try to get as much information as possible to make sure that we contact other people who may have been in close proximity [or] in close contact with the positive person to let them know that they possibly [have] been exposed,” Villarreal said.
Other facilities, such as Next Level Urgent Care, also offer curbside nasal swab testing for the coronavirus. According to Director of Business Development Cheryl Bertrand, patients must be evaluated by a Next Level Urgent Care health care provider via a virtual visitation before scheduling a test.
“This is convenient because they can have their virtual visit from home, and then we give them a specific time to come,” Bertrand said. “They drive right up; we have someone go to their car; we do the swab test, and you would receive your results much quicker than many of the national testing sites because we're using a private lab.”
Patients can expect results in 24-48 hours after being tested, Bertrand said. Virtual visits, which can be billed through insurance providers, cost $75, and tests including lab analysis cost $120, Bertrand said.
Bertrand also said Next Level Urgent Care health professionals are able to offer follow-up health care for medical treatment of symptoms or other illnesses.
“If [patients test] positive, then we talk to them about, ‘How are you feeling now? Do you need medication for your symptoms? Has something become more severe? Do you need to go to the [emergency room]?’” Bertrand said. “Our provider talks with them over the phone about where they are right now at the stage of illness.”
Antibody testing, also known as serology testing, is another form of coronavirus testing that is instead conducted via a small blood sample to detect the presence of antibodies in the body formed in reaction to COVID-19.
According to the CDC, antibody tests can indicate previous infection, as it can take one to two weeks for the body to develop these antibodies.
“The reason why people like antibody antigen tests, it's really meant for people that are asymptomatic,” said Dr. Huong Lee, physician-owner of Community ER. “They may have had exposure, they're currently not sick, or they've already been [sick], and they've been quarantined for 14 days, and they need to know if they developed antibodies so they can go back to work.”
Community ER began offering antibody testing for the novel coronavirus on April 6. According to Michael Nguyen, clinic manager of the Community ER location at 3550 Rayford Road, Spring, the testing process takes approximately 20 minutes, after which results are issued. Patients can book an appointment and pay for the test by registering on the clinic's website.
"Once you have the appointment booked, ... we're able to see your profile," Nguyen said. "We have you sign two consent forms just so that we can administer the test. ... It takes about three minutes, and then, after that, we will send you your results electronically. ... Or, if you decide, ... we can give you a hard copy."
Tests cost $95 each and can be administered at the Community ER location on Rayford Road and the clinic located at 837 FM 1960, Houston.