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Ascension resumes COVID-19 testing amid Omicron

Tony Giberson

With a new wave of COVID-19 cases — most involving the Omicron variant — the drive-through testing centers have returned to the Pensacola area.

One of the returning sites is at Ascension-Sacred Heart Hospital, which reopened Tuesday and has been doing a lively business. Tuesday set a single-day record for patient volume.

“We saw 649 people that day in four hours; we’re open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.,” said Justin Labrato, chief operating officer of Ascension Medical Group Sacred Heart.

He adds that another record was set on Wednesday.

“Our 300th day of doing the drive-by testing center in Pensacola; so, us setting a volume record on Tuesday was pretty incredible — we did not expect that,” he said. “[Wednesday], we had 539 people through. And both days looked to be right around a 50% positivity rate.”

The PCR testing cannot distinguish which type of COVID-19 a patient has — original, Delta or Omicron — but Labrato says the results do come back much faster than when the testing originally began.

“Our lab has the Roche-Cobas machine that can run 1,000 PCR tests in eight hours; so, if you were tested yesterday, you get your results back this morning,” Labrato said. “And the nice thing about having that in Pensacola is it is interfaced. So if there’s a positive, it goes to the county and you might even get a text from the county if you’re positive before we can call you the next morning with the results.”

Sacred Heart is being joined by the Florida Department of Health in Escambia County, which resumed its testing on Thursday.

“We’re thrilled that Community Health opened up the Brownsville site, but right now the [Sacred Heart] testing site at Bayou Boulevard is just 30 of my volunteers from Ascension Medical Group-Sacred Heart, and I would say 20 of the 30 are my administrative team.”

This round of testing is different from previous variant surges, according to Labrato, who points to fewer hospitalizations this time.

“We’ve been steady at about 50 hospitalizations over the last 4 days, compared to our peak during Delta where we were around 150,” Labrato said. “We’re not being strained a lot by in-patient capacity, but we are being strained more in our emergency rooms, our urgent cares, [and] our doctors’ offices.”

He adds that’s why the testing center was set up the way it is this time.

“To take the strain off the ERs, mainly; because the flu’s going around; there are traumatic injuries that are happening to people that they need to get into the ER timely. And we want to be able to help and get the COVID out of the ER where we can.”

Through a sense of community and word-of-mouth, outbreaks are fairly well-known in Pensacola, but Labrato concedes they’re comparably a bit late to the party.

“And so, we’re just monitoring what’s happening in our community,” Labrato said. “We know we’re a month behind where the North and the Northeast was on this surge. We usually give ourselves about a week to prepare to get these set up, and I think we’re going to be testing only for about two weeks or so.”

Actions people can take to protect themselves and others and in turn help hospitals from being overtaxed, says Ascension’s Justin Labrato, are the same as at the beginning of the pandemic.

“You come into the hospitals, you see all the health care workers masked up; but you leave here and go to Walmart — you go to the grocery store — and almost no one is, except for the workers,” said Labrato. “The vaccines are effective; the hospitalizations that we have, the majority are unvaccinated. Continue the masking, get vaccinated if you haven’t. Hand hygiene, just the normal things that we’ve been pushing for the last two years.”

Once again, Ascension-Sacred Heart conducts COVID testing Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., at 5192 Bayou Blvd. Hours and locations at the Department of Health sites are available at escambia.floridahealth.gov