Feds launch COVID-19 telemedicine study and pilot program in Berks County

The National Institutes of Health and telemedicine provider eMed will study how virtual COVID home testing and treatment could work on a large scale.



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The federal government, in partnership with a telemedicine provider, is launching a study to look at the efficiency of at-home testing and treatment for COVID-19.

The national pilot program’s first site will be in Berks County, Pennsylvania.

State officials said their hope is to create more health equity across the Commonwealth.

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“The Home Test to Treat pilot program is a step toward that goal and we are excited that Berks County was chosen as the first in the nation to pilot this important program,” said former Acting Secretary of Health and Physician General Dr. Denise Johnson in a statement last week.

At-home testing and screening for illnesses like COVID-19 has become fairly common during the pandemic, and utilization of telehealth services during the same time grew rapidly.

There’s still debate on what role virtual care can, and should, play in the health care landscape today. The latest national pilot program aims to study how telehealth can provide COVID-19 testing and treatment on a large scale.

“It’s both a public health initiative and a population community research study to understand how Americans utilize telemedicine, whether telemedicine is something that the federal government should support for this pandemic and future pandemic efforts,” Dr. Michael Mina said.

Mina is an epidemiologist and chief science officer at eMed, the telemedicine provider that will administer the pilot program with help from the National Institutes of Health.

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Enrollment in the Berks County pilot sites opened Jan. 17. Residents can participate if they are 18 years and older, speak either English or Spanish, and have a working email address.

Program participants will get six telehealth kits that each contain COVID-19 rapid tests and instructions on how to set up a virtual medical visit if and when they begin to feel symptoms of illness.

When someone tests positive for COVID-19 and needs treatment, medical experts can order antiviral medications like Paxlovid to a local pharmacy for pick up. The medication can also be shipped directly to a patient’s home.

Study participants will get the kits, medical visits, and treatments at no cost.

Program leaders said this model of telemedicine is almost entirely virtual, as opposed to when people can test themselves at home, but may still have to go to a doctor’s office in person for a medical visit or to get a prescription for treatment.

Mina said people in certain populations and geographic areas might benefit most from having a virtual option.

“Some people are an hour away from the nearest [brick and mortar] test-to-treat location,” he said, “and that, especially for rural Americans, test-to-treat in person has really been a challenge.”

The pilot in Berks County aims to enroll up to 8,000 residents.

Mina said he hopes to open the program to the rest of Pennsylvania, and the U.S., in the next couple weeks. He said he plans to roll out influenza home testing and treatment in the near future.

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