What seemed to the outside to be a quick response to testing the spread of COVID-19 in the Augusta area was the result of careful planning by Augusta University Health well before the city saw its first confirmed case in March, and shortly thereafter, AU Health began leading testing efforts across Georgia.
By Aug. 13, AU Health surpassed 50,000 COVID-19 specimen collections in the Augusta area alone, between drive-thru sites and testing in the emergency department.
“We had our first local case March 15, but we had already been planning for some time,” said Dr. Phillip Coule, vice president and chief medical officer of Augusta University Health System.
Discussion of response to the virus began hitting the media in December. Coule said at that point, he realized it was something the system needed to keep an eye on. Response plans had already been in place to manage pandemic influenza, so when news of the novel coronavirus began picking up steam, he pulled together a task force to prepare for it.
“One of the components (of our pandemic preparedness) is what’s called a POD — a point of distribution site,” Coule said. “We had pre-planned Christenberry Fieldhouse as a POD site. That is, if you have to do a mass vaccination, or mass testing, or something like that, we’ve already planned how that would go.”
Because that plan was already in place, it allowed for quick adaptation for Christenberry as the first drive-thru location. Christenberry’s layout also easily allowed for patients to be tested in their cars — self-contained isolation at a time when medical professionals worried about major airborne transmission.
Christenberry worked well when it was first set up in the spring. But as summer came and brought with it the usual pop-up thunderstorms and rising temperatures, the location became less than ideal. It quickly became apparent that a more permanent solution was needed.
The Annex II on the Health Sciences Campus on 15th Street had a building that was once an automotive service center. The new location could accommodate up to six cars at one time and allowed for both climate control and shelter from the elements. It also provided more convenient and quicker testing for patients.
“I refer to it as the Chick-fil-A of drive-thrus,” Coule said. “Chick-fil-A is known for running efficient drive-thrus. Our operational excellence team, along with the laboratory team and Mallary Myers — the chief innovation officer — IT, nursing. Everyone has just continued to relentlessly drive for efficiency and accuracy at that site.”
Most patients are able to be swabbed within minutes of arriving and receive their results within 24 hours.
Looking back, Coule said it has taken everyone on the team performing at their best to make the system work as well as it does, from the Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response (CEPaR), to operational excellence, to nursing, to the lab staff, to “the people who are literally moving the specimen from the testing site to the lab.”
“The number of people who have been involved in our COVID response has been nothing short of miraculous, and I think the stellar response of the institution is a reflection on all of the wonderful members of the team we have,” he said.