Drive-thru testing

A drive-thru testing station is seen on 9th Avenue and Noble Street on Monday. Eric Bennett/News-Miner

Fairbanks health care officials and local leaders once again urged Gov. Mike Dunleavy to issue a shelter-in-place mandate in a meeting with reporters Tuesday during which Foundation Health Partners representatives reflected on testing numbers, methods and shifts in health care practices amid evolving uncertainty over COVID-19.

“What we need now is shelter in place, we need it for everyone, at all times. We need it to break the current cycle," said Dr. Angelique Ramirez, quality medical director with Foundation Health Partners, which operates Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, Tanana Valley Clinic and Denali Center. "Social distancing is a great technique, but it is not enough at this point in the cycle.”

The message was echoed by local leadership. 

“While the governor did not actually say the words ‘shelter in place,’ that is what I am absolutely telling people to do,” Fairbanks city Mayor Jim Matherly said. “The only thing that’s really going to help us is if people stay put as much as they possibly can.”

The situation with cases of COVID-19 in the Fairbanks area is likely worse than current test results are showing, Ramirez explained. 

“Our clinicians have been seeing community transmission every day now for the past several days. They’re seeing it in the urgent care clinic, they’re seeing it in the emergency room," Ramirez said, noting that the state's epidemiology team has acknowledged this likelihood. "We do not have the test results back to document it. If we wait for the test results, we will be waiting too long.”

Foundation Health Partners' two drive-thru testing stations at Tanana Valley Clinic and outside the emergency room at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital have reported steady traffic with a sharp increase in testing between their soft openings on Friday and over the weekend. 

Four individuals were tested Friday, with testing increasing to about 14 each day on Saturday and Sunday, according to Dr. Mishelle Nace, a pediatrician at Tanana Valley Clinic who spoke with reporters Tuesday afternoon. These numbers increased more Monday with 13 individuals tested at the clinic location and 22 tested at the hospital location, according to Foundation Health Partners President and CEO Shelley Ebenal.

Foundation Health Partners has collectively performed 407 tests to date, Ebenal added. That does not include tests performed by other health care facilities such as Fairbanks Community Health Center, Tanana Chiefs Conference or other organizations.

In addition to launching the remote testing locations, Tanana Valley Clinic and its First Care site have shifted operations to better accommodate an increased number of COVID-19-related patients; as has Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. 

At the clinic and First Care, all individuals who are showing symptoms or respond to screening questions in a way that sparks concern of COVID-19 remain at the First Care facility for testing and care while all individuals who are seeking medical care for something unrelated to COVID-19 like a sprained ankle or infection and are not showing symptoms are cared for at the clinic's main location at 10th Avenue and Noble Street.

“What we’re trying to do is continue with business adapting to our current community status,” Nace said, noting that either way, Tanana Valley Clinic is not turning away patients who aren't exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 as some rumors have suggested.

To that end, the clinic is now mirroring First Care's hours of 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Friday.

Ebenal added that Fairbanks Memorial Hospital is making similar shifts in operations to make room for anticipated COVID-19 patients. 

COVID-19 patients who require intensive care unit admission will be treated in the hospital's main ICU area until it is filled, at which point patients will be directed to a backup ICU area in the hospital.

COVID-19 patients who do not require ICU care will be treated in a specific section of the hospital, separate from other non-virus patients. If that non-ICU area is filled, non-ICU COVID-19 patients will be treated off campus at an alternative site that has been set up, Ebenal said. 

“At this time we don’t have a huge concern about a shortage of beds or ventilators or other equipment, but the virus hasn’t hit us bad yet," she said.

Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.