CONWAY — Next week, Memorial Hospital will start offering COVID-19 tests for people who are not experiencing any symptoms of the disease. The testing begins Monday, Aug. 10, by appointment only.
At Gov. Chris Sununu’s news conference Thursday, it was announced that 19 hospitals in New Hampshire, including Memorial, will begin providing the community-based testing. Others include Huggins Hospital in Wolfeboro and Androscoggin Valley Hospital in Berlin.
Announcing the program, Health Commissioner Lori Shibinette said with the hospitals, urgent care centers and pharmacies now doing the testing, people will have dozens of places to get tested even if they have no symptoms.
She said as hospital testing ramps up, fixed site testing locations, like the one in Tamworth operated by the National Guard, will ramp down (though the state has not announced immediate plans to do so.
And if they have to set up new fixed sites, they will, Shibinette said. “It’s really important that nobody needs to drive long distances to get a COVID test.”
Local business leaders say improvements in testing will help businesses stay open.
Ellie Koeppel, owner of The Wentworth hotel in Jackson, said, “Making testing readily available for all, with quick turnaround on results, is critical for every industry to stay open.”
She would like to see testing that would give results in less than a day.
“It is an abject failure of our leadership to have to wait over two weeks for a test result,” she said. “Neither a business nor the individual can wait that long and survive economically.”
Janice Crawford, executive director of the Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce, said: “We need testing that brings results in 48 hours because it’s closing down businesses.”
Crawford said a few local businesses closed their doors for up to two weeks waiting for test results.
Chamber President Christopher Bellis said he had also heard of businesses that closed. .
Shibinette said rapid testing that can deliver a result in under an hour is currently reserved for symptomatic or critically ill people in the hospital or in nursing homes.
“We do have a two- to three-day turnaround right now. So although it’s not rapid, 15 minutes or an hour, hopefully with the our turnaround times staying pretty low in New Hampshire, we’ll be able to get people back (to work or school) pretty quickly,” Shibinette said.
In response to a question from the Sun, Shibinette said, “We haven’t gotten any complaints from businesses saying that testing was an obstacle for to them being fully operational, or being able to conduct their business.
“We have on occasion gone out and done testing for businesses when they’ve had a concern about an employee exposure or something like that.”
But she said, “I am not routinely hearing about 14-day turnarounds.”
Memorial Hospital officials said they expect to be able to get results to people within 72 hours.
The tests at hospitals are made possible under an agreement with the New Hampshire Department of Health.
“As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the need for increased community testing has grown,” said Memorial Hospital Chief Medical Officer Dr. Matt Dunn. “We’ve been limited to testing patients with one or more COVID symptoms or who fall into a high-risk group such as first responders.
“Working with the state has helped create opportunities for people without symptoms to be tested.”
Memorial has created a testing center for people without symptoms at its outpatient physical therapy building on the north side of the campus on Route 16 in North Conway. The testing does not require a doctor’s visit.
Those seeking tests should enter at the “Scheduled Testing” signs and go to the testing center on the left. Tests will be done while the person stays in his or her vehicle.
However, Dunn said appointments for testing are required. To make an appointment for a test, call (603) 356-0673. “It is important for people to call and register for their test,” he said. “This helps the clinicians work safely with all patients and keeps hospital roadways clear for emergencies.”
Testing takes only a few minutes. Results will be available online through MyChart, the hospital’s electronic medical records system. Patients will also receive a telephone call with their results.
Testing will be available Monday-Friday from 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m.
People with COVID-19 symptoms such as fever and chills, shortness of breath, and loss of taste and smell, are asked to go to the hospital’s emergency department for evaluation. They should enter from the south entrance on Route 16 and proceed to the emergency department, calling (603) 356-4946 to register from their vehicle.
Memorial tests only for the presence of an active COVID-19 infection. The hospital does not provide an antibody test.
Before registering for a test, the hospital suggests people contact their insurance carrier about coverage and payment for an asymptomatic test.
The hospital will help New Hampshire residents without insurance apply for state funds to cover the cost of their test.
In her presentation, Shibinette said Medicaid has a COVID-19 testing benefit that pays for the test for anybody without insurance, and hospitals have the expertise to help people sign up through NH EASY to get Medicaid to pay for a test if they don’t have insurance.