Montco closes federally funded COVID-19 test site, will open six more next week

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Dr. Valerie Arkoosh, chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Dr. Valerie Arkoosh, chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Montgomery County is among the suburban Philadelphia counties entering the “green” phase, which is the least restrictive of Pennsylvania’s pandemic reopening plan.

In March, it was the first region to issue a stay at home order and shut down businesses when it had the most coronavirus cases statewide.

On Tuesday, federal funding ended for the county’s only COVID-19 test site, but new CARES Act funds are supporting six new test sites in the county that will start testing on July 6.

Montgomery County Commissioner Dr. Valerie Arkoosh spoke with Morning Edition host Jennifer Lynn on Friday to talk about how the county went from virus epicenter to a least restrictive zone, and how Montco continues to ramp up testing as restrictions ease across the state.

Good morning, doctor.

Good morning, Jennifer.

The coronavirus is still with us in the green phase. How does your county reopen responsibly? There’s been news now of the virus spikes in other parts of the country.

Well, we have been at this from day one, from the day that we started to close things down. We’ve been thinking about, “How do we reopen responsibly?” We are in a much better position than we were 16 weeks ago, when we first had to close schools in Montgomery County. Number one, we’ve got a much lower level of virus here in our community as of [June] 20, which is the most recent data that I have collated. Of all the people that were tested in the county, only 4.5% tested positive. That contrasts with our peak, which was in early April, of near 28%. So a lot less virus in our community. We had many more systems in place. Now we have a much more robust contact-tracing team. We’ve got monitoring technology that we have put together across our county departments to quickly identify any outbreaks or hotspots. We know a lot more about the virus and we have a better sense of how to limit spread in our hospitals. While there’s still no cure for the virus, our hospitals have much more information about how to safely treat patients with the virus and how to put protocols in place to help keep hospital staff safe. So we have made a lot of progress, but it’s just so important that people remember this isn’t over yet.

Yeah, I want to talk about testing and contact tracing a little bit. When Montgomery County was the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in Pennsylvania in March, it had 13 of the state’s 22 cases and it reported 48 new cases yesterday. How do you reconcile the move to green?

Well, it’s really about many of those things that I just previously mentioned 16 weeks ago. We were literally building a plane as we were trying to fly it. There was very little understanding of how the virus spreads or even a complete understanding of the symptoms of the virus. For instance, today we know that some people experience loss of taste or loss of smell as the only symptom that they have. There was no knowledge of that 16 weeks ago. We understand today how important masks are to prevent the spread of the virus. Sixteen weeks ago, we didn’t understand that the virus can linger in the air. Now we know that. And that’s part of why masks are so important. So in a very short period of time, we’ve come a long way with our knowledge and with our infrastructure to find the virus, help people isolate and quarantine, treat [or] at least provide supportive care for those who are ill and who’s most at risk from becoming ill.

Let’s talk about masks. You say they still serve a purpose. You’re a physician. What do you say to people who see wearing a mask as an affront on civil liberties, as a form of weakness?

You know, if I had one do-over in this whole situation, it would be to have a better understanding of how the virus spreads … that understanding now is that it really can linger in the air. It can travel farther than we know, and that if both people have masks on, or if everyone together has masks on, it does absolutely limit the spread of the virus. States that do not have any kind of mask requirements, or even strong recommendations, as they start to reopen you’re seeing surges of cases. In fact, I think the United States had their highest number of reported cases ever yesterday. But in the states where there are either mask requirements or strong recommendations, you’re seeing case levels that are stable or even going down. I’d like to remind people I’m an anesthesiologist by training. If anyone’s ever had surgery, you know that everyone in the operating room had a mask on and we wore those masks not to protect us from the patient, but to protect the patient from the medical staff in case any of us had a cold or the flu. So masks really do protect people, and we need to just adopt them and wear them anytime we’re in public until there’s a vaccine.

I know you want to continue testing in the county. To make it available and affordable, what are you doing going forward?

Well, people may have heard that the federal funding to Montgomery County is stopping on June 30. We fully anticipated this and have been planning for it. The county did receive direct funding through the CARES Act, and we are using some of that funding to stand up six walk-up testing sites that will open on July 6. They will be no-cost. They will not require any kind of health provider’s order. We will test people of any age and we want to strongly encourage people to get tested even if they just want to be tested, even if they’re just curious, because the more people that get tested, the better eyes we will have on what’s going on in the community. One of the other things we’ve learned in these 16 weeks is that people can have absolutely no symptoms, be carrying the virus and be contagious. So the more people that get tested, the greater our chances are of keeping this thing under control and living with this virus, which is what we’re going to have to do until we have a vaccine.

All right. Let’s look through your watchful eyes. What scenario would pull us toward phasing down to a yellow or even a red phase again?

Well, certainly we all hope that that does not happen. But from my perspective, the biggest risk would be if our hospitals start to become overwhelmed. And we did see that in the early days, that many of our Montgomery County hospitals were nearing capacity. We still have about 85 hospitalized patients in Montgomery County hospitals, and about a quarter of them are on ventilators, to help breathe. So at our peak, we had over 400 patients hospitalized. So we’ve made really good progress and we have a lot of capacity. But if our hospitals started to become overwhelmed again, that would really put the brakes on things.

Yeah. Two bits of quick advice for folks who’ve been teleworking and going back to work. Anything for them?

Yes. If you can continue to telework, you should. Even at our county government, where we employ about 2,400 people, we are not having everyone come back in. Anyone who can continue to be working from home is going to continue to do so. And as for others, there’s also a greater understanding of who’s more at risk. So people over 70 at the highest, people between 50 and 70 at moderate risk. But then if you have underlying medical conditions, that can certainly change your risk as well. So you take a look at that data. And if that applies to you, talk to your boss and see if you can continue to work from home, even on a limited basis, it’s helpful.

Yeah. And very quickly, any advice to universities, public, private schools, trying to decide what to do?

Yeah. Really big question. I meet almost weekly with the 22 school superintendents in Philadelphia for our K-12 schools. We’re working together collaboratively on guidance to try to keep our kids safe. One of my number one goals is to get children back in school for as many days as possible, and as safely as possible, during this next year. So we’re working on distancing and school schedules and masking and all of that.

Awesome. Well, Dr. Valerie Arkoosh is chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners. She’s also a physician and I thank her for her time.

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