People in the Bitterroot Valley have a new option when it comes to testing for COVID.
Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital started offering free home tests this week to help people who have found it challenging to obtain a test in other ways.
“Folks can come in through the emergency entrance and go to the window dedicated for COVID swabbing,” said hospital spokesperson Christina Voyles. “They can pick up their home tests there.”
Faced with an extremely busy clinic and hospital staff working double shifts to treat COVID patients, Voyles said the home tests seemed like a good option to ensure the hospital’s resources were focused on treating people with the highest needs.
“We are overwhelmed right now,” Voyles said. “Our convenient care clinic normally sees probably 15 people on a busy day. We are seeing closer to 70 right now. It’s not all COVID, but it’s mostly people who aren’t feeling well and they want to be tested. Part of what we are doing with these home tests is an attempt to alleviate some of that.”
“A home test is a great option for people who might be concerned, but aren’t showing symptoms,” she said. “It helps us serve people better and get them in and out so we can focus on those who really aren’t feeling well.”
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The hospital has seen a growing number of COVID-19 cases since Labor Day weekend.
“We kept thinking it would plateau and go back down, but we haven’t seen that yet,” Voyles said. “It’s what made us jump into action here.”
The home tests will be limited to two per household. Voyles said the tests aren’t easy to come by and the hospital may run out at some point.
Voyles said the hospital is experiencing times when its beds are full.
“Our staff is very stressed,” she said. “We have people working double shifts. We have people putting in more time because of the number of COVID cases that we’re seeing.”
The COVID patients who are having the most trouble are unvaccinated, Voyles said.
The situation at the hospital changes daily, sometimes hourly.
“We might start a day with six COVID patients and by the end of the day it’s down to four but then it’s back to eight by that same night,” she said. “It’s literally hour by hour right now.”
The Hamilton hospital is not accepting patients from other areas, but Voyles said that a couple of patients had to be transported elsewhere because the hospital was full at the time.
“Our staff is overwhelmed right now,” she said. “It’s scary. It’s scary for them. It’s scary for us. We want them to be safe. We want them to be well so they can take care of our community.”
Ravalli County Office of Emergency Management Director Eric Hoover said the county hasn’t been able to track the number of active COVID cases because the state lab has scaled back on the number of days it processes tests and the county public health office is short on staff.
“All across the state, we’re seeing public health departments faced with the same challenges,” Hoover said. “The numbers that are being reported are not as real-time as they were a year ago. It’s really challenging to get an accurate picture. We know numbers are high.”
Bitterroot Drug owner Pete Seifert said the Hamilton drug store has seen a “significant uptick” in people coming in to be vaccinated in the last three weeks.
“A lot of people who have been hesitant are going ahead and getting vaccinated,” Seifert said. “I think their comfort level has gotten better as time has gone on. They are looking at the risk/reward factor and deciding to get on board.”
“The fact that it's now FDA-approved; that we have given out millions of doses across the country; and we know that it works well to prevent hospitalizations and deaths has helped people make up their minds,” he said. “We have vaccinated close to 5,000 people now. I’ve heard no complaints other than a little bit of fatigue and fever up to 36 hours after the vaccination. I’ve heard more complaints about the shingles vaccine.”
The drugstore’s pharmacy manager, Jen Errett, encouraged people to stop and talk with them if they have questions about the vaccine. Bitterroot Drug currently has all three.
Seifert said they are already talking with local assisted living centers and schools about providing clinics for booster shots.
The drugstore also carries home tests that are similar to what’s offered at the hospital.
“It’s been very challenging to get them in,” Seifert said.
The tests started out costing about $20 for a package of two. Today they are closer to $40 or 450.
The rapid tests are roughly 83% accurate on a negative reading. If people follow up 24 hours later with the second test that comes with the package and get another negative reading, Seifert said the test claims it is 99% accurate at that point.
“It’s not perfect but it is a valuable tool,” he said. “It can give people some peace of mind…I applaud the hospital for providing those to people. The more testing that we have, the better off we will be.