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Sacred Heart Test Volunteers: 'This is Their Passion'

Tony Giberson

In the nearly two weeks Ascension-Sacred Heart Hospital has been conducting its drive-through testing for coronavirus, the numbers have been increasing daily. And the program could live beyond the current crisis.

The idea was based on the volume of patients coming through Sacred Heart’s emergency room. Chief operating officer Justin Labrato says they wanted to make sure they could keep all patients and health care workers safe.

Given 72 hours to draw up a plan, the team looked at similar drive-throughs in the western states, and made some tweaks.

“Because a lot of the things they were doing were, ‘let’s swab for flu and COVID-19, and you don’t have to be screened to come.’ And it was mass chaos,” Labrato said.

The program is divided into two parts: a telephone bank that screens for eligibility, and then the actual testing with nasal swabs.

“We receive about 700 calls a day in our screening call center,” said Labrato. “What we’re doing is looking at the CDC’s screening criteria. And about 30% of the callers meet that criteria. We direct them at that point in time to go through our drive-through testing center."

In the first 10 days of operation, Labrato said the program has seen 1,700 patients – roughly 45 per hour.

One challenge facing Sacred Heart – and all other hospitals for that matter – is keeping the day-to-day operations going while adjusting to handle coronavirus.

“We’re making sure we don’t have patients that have elective procedures or unnecessary doctor visits maybe their wellness exams,” said Labrato. “We’re trying to get them to stay home. It’s the first time in my 19 years at Sacred Heart that we have truly tried to limit the number of patients coming in to 50% or less of normal volume.”

Another key challenge – if not the key challenge – is getting supplies and gear to hospitals and testing locations. At Ascension-Sacred Heart, Labrato says so far, so good.

“I’ve been very fortunate; Sacred Heart-Pensacola has been providing us with swabs and protective equipment,” said Labrato. “We’re day-to-day looking at the inventory, making sure that we can do the next day. So we’re holding up just fine.’

Despite the drive-through’s short time in existence, Labrato says the Sacred Heart template is being copied, both inside and outside the Ascension umbrella.

“Ascension in Jacksonville used our same setup; Community Northwest Florida, who also uses our screening call center,” said Labrato. “I talked to people in Oklahoma, Birmingham, Baltimore and Washington. It’s really across Ascension; [we] looked at as the best practice on how to do this.”

The idea of drive-through testing began with COVID-19, but it’s not expected to go away once the virus runs its course. Labrato says the concept is evolving daily, and he has no doubt the procedure is here to stay.

“If the volume drops for COVID testing and we see a need for – let’s say the flu – we could do the same setup there,” Labrato said. “The most important part of this is the clinical team that we have. These are all volunteers; I’ve had over 100 Ascension-Sacred Heart Medical Group. Anywhere from nurses to accountants to administrators.”

And you don’t have to have a medical or nursing degree to help out.

“You don’t have to be the person swabbing; you can be the person answering the phone or directing traffic,” said Labrato. “There’s a bunch of different responsibilities that we have. Our team has been outstanding in this process, and I can’t get them to take a day off. This is their passion. They built it, they want to see it all the way through to the end.”

If there’s any good to come out of the nation’s siege with COVID-19, Ascension-Sacred Heart COO Justin Labrato says it could very well be the experience – which in turn can lead to better preparation when – and not if – the next outbreak rears its head.

“We kind of compare this to what we learned the hurricanes – with Ivan and then Michael,” Labrato said. “Once you have been through this and you’ve built the processes, you’re that much better the next time something similar happens. I have no doubt the next thing that comes down the line, we’re going to be that much more prepared.”

Meanwhile, additional measures are being taken as coronavirus numbers climb. The Pensacola News Journal reports that Pensacola-area hospitals, Sacred Heart, Baptist and West Florida, are placing restrictions on the number of visitors, in hopes of slowing down the virus.