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Coastal Health District finds ways to increase its response to COVID-19
Drive through testing.jpg
A healthcare worker reaches into a car to administer a nasal swap at the drive-through COVID-19 testing site in Savannah. The specimen collection sites are not open to the public – all patients must be referred by a physician and be assigned a “Person Under Investigation” number prior to visiting the specimen collection site. Photo provided.

A community crisis demands a community response, and public health has faced no greater crisis in recent history than the COVID-19 outbreak.

In coastal Georgia, several community partners have joined with the Coastal Health District to increase public health’s capacity to respond.

Some of the joint efforts currently underway include drive-through testing and epidemiological investigations and contact tracing.

Drive-through specimen collection for COVID-19 testing

Early in the crisis it became clear that testing resources needed to expand around the state. Across Georgia, public health districts have set up drive-through specimen collection sites where doctors can send patients to have their nasal passages swabbed for testing.

The drive-through model is quick and efficient, with a reduced risk of spreading infection because patients stay in their cars.

The Coastal Health District has specimen collection sites in Glynn and Chatham counties. In Glynn County, nurses from the Southeast Georgia Health System are assisting with specimen collection. The specimen collection sites are not open to the public – patients must be referred by a physician and be assigned a “Person Under Investigation” number prior to visiting the specimen collection site.

At the Chatham County location, medical students with Mercer University and the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University are collecting specimens. Local law enforcement officers are also present, assisting with security and traffic flow. The Savannah Police Department, Chatham County Police Department, Chatham County Sheriff’s Office, Glynn County Sheriff’s Office, Georgia State Patrol, Glynn County School Resource Officers and officers with the Motor Carrier Compliance Division are providing support.

As laboratory capacity increases across the state and testing kits become more readily available, traffic to these drive-through specimen collection sites will increase.

Epidemiological investigations, contact tracing 

One key to limiting the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is ensuring that infected individuals don’t spread the virus to others.

This is the monumental task of Coastal Health District epidemiologists. The epidemiology office calls each individual with a confirmed case of COVID-19 to begin an investigation, which includes creating a list of close contacts that may have been exposed.

One lab-confirmed case can lead to dozens of phone calls to notify these close contacts and offer guidance. While the district typically has four full-time epidemiologists covering eight counties, it was soon clear that in-depth contact tracing could not continue without additional help, and 12 staff members from other departments in the Coastal Health District were reassigned to assist.

As the caseload continued to grow, a partnership opportunity emerged. Third- and fourth-year medical students from Mercer University and the Southeast Campus of the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University were wrapping up their semester and looking for ways to assist.

After a brief training, they were added to the phone bank for contact tracing. Roughly 50 students are now assisting, working in shifts.

Every day these students, supervised by Coastal Health District epidemiologists, conduct patient interviews and notify close contacts.

Thanks to these partnerships with the Southeast Georgia Health System, Mercer University, and the Medical College of Georgia at August University, the Coastal Health District is better positioned to respond.

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