More people in Fairbanks likely have COVID-19 than are being tested or logged, says Tim Carey, owner of McKinley Orthopedics, a local practice that recently closed temporarily after the state health officials linked a number of positive COVID-19 patients who sought treatment at the facility before knowing they were contagious. 

The business has since cooperated with the state Department of Health and Social Services in temporarily closing through April 2 after learning of patients who unknowingly already had the disease that had come through the practice. Carey said Monday he wanted to clarify that the patients who have now tested positive didn’t contract the disease because they sought treatment at McKinley. 

“At least half of those patients were patients that came through our door and we didn’t know, and the only reason we found out was because we were actively screening and testing patients,” Carey told the Daily News-Miner.

The business has been screening all individuals who entered the building since March 15, Carey noted. This includes taking the patient’s temperature, asking about travel history and inquiring about possible symptoms such as a cough or difficulty breathing.

Those who checked any of those boxes were sent to be tested, a process that Carey said was more difficult than it should have been. 

“A lot of the patients that were tested, we kind of forced them to be tested when a lot of them said they didn’t need to be tested because they didn’t have symptoms,” Carey said. “We had two symptomatic people who basically said ‘This is my standard dry cough, this is not COVID,’ and they turned out positive.”

Additionally, Carey ran into problems when a First Care facility wouldn’t test several of the patients. It is currently not Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or state practice to test individuals without symptoms, and up until this week, state policy limited tests to only symptomatic individuals deemed “high risk,” so Carey said he had to call the facility to encourage the test to be taken. 

“Two of the people we sent to get tested were told ‘No, you don’t need to get tested.’ And it took me calling them back and saying ‘No, they do need to be tested, we’re concerned they had contact with a possible positive person,’” Carey explained.

A number of the 15 cases the state health department says it has linked to the business are dated prior to March 15 when the practice began actively screening incoming patients. 

Some of those included practice staff who also were unaware they had been infected until they tested positive, Carey said. Since then, those staff have been required to self-quarantine at home.

The practice is set to reopen Friday, at which point Carey notes physicians will only be seeing urgent cases such as broken bones and dislocations. Other consultations can be handled over the phone or through video conference, he said. 

“Where we normally see 120 patients a day, we’re down to eight,” Carey said. “Then we’re doing 12 to 15 video appointments.”

Additionally, practice staff will be working weeklong shifts every two weeks to incorporate a regularly scheduled automatic quarantine period, Carey said. 

“We have enough staff to rotate everybody. So everybody is going to work one week, and then take two weeks off,” he said. “So if there’s any chance they have symptoms, everybody is going to be self-quarantined away from the business already. It kind of keeps everybody safe.”

Ultimately, Carey said he thinks the number of confirmed cases in the state and in Fairbanks is far lower than the actual number of cases due to the limits in testing capability and protocol. 

“We had six different people with six different sources come into our clinic. If that percentage of the patients in the public have it, then it’s also at Fred Meyer, Safeway, Walmart. The only difference is that those places aren’t screening at the door,” Carey said. “It’s a small town, this thing is everywhere, and I think the public needs to be careful. It’s not like you’re only going to get it by coming to our office. It’s there in the public and you need to be careful to take care of yourself.”

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