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El Camino Healthcare District board OKs $2.4M for widespread COVID testing

Rengstorff Park
Andrew Yee/Special to the Town Crier
A Mountain View resident is tested for COVID-19 during a pop-up testing event in Rengstorff Park. The County of Santa Clara Public Health Department deployed a mobile testing unit to the area for a few days in late May in an effort to test as many people as possible to track the virus’ spread.

 With a $2.4 million shot in the arm from the El Camino Healthcare District’s board reserves, El Camino Hospital officials hope to test 20,000 local residents for COVID-19.

The testing, available at El Camino Health’s Mountain View campus, is available by appointment for anyone who lives, works or attends school within the district – an area that incorporates most of Mountain View, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills, a large portion of Sunnyvale and small sections of Cupertino, Santa Clara and Palo Alto.

People who are tested do not have to exhibit symptoms or show a doctor’s note to undergo the RT-PCR coronavirus test, much less invasive than the original test administered with a long swab through the nose into the throat.

The district will fund the entire cost of the test. For people with insurance, billing will be submitted to the insurance agencies. The district will pay any balance not covered by insurance.

El Camino Healthcare board director Gary Kalbach said he and fellow member George Ting met May 7 with El Camino Hospital CEO Dan Woods to discuss how best to use surplus budget funds. When someone suggested at a board meeting May 19 to set aside $1.2 million each year for two years to underwrite the free, no-insurance-needed testing, there was no debate. Kalbach said he was blown away by the unanimous support.

“There was no contest – everybody jumped on it,” he said. “If you listen to Dr. (Anthony) Fauci or (Santa Clara County public health rep) Dr. Sara Cody about testing, we have known that it is pitifully inadequate not just in the county, but across the state. They are never going to figure out the track of COVID-19 unless we test a lot of people. So the conversation lasted maybe five or 10 minutes.”

Kalbach noted that the decision “caught the hospital off guard.” But, according to Woods, in the two days after the announcement, 30 people had taken advantage of El Camino Health’s offer. There’s an option to renew the program past its two-year mark if the need continues, Kalbach added.

Ahead of the curve

The board’s decision came about before Cody’s mandate that all large health-care providers offer free testing to high-risk populations. Kalbach said the board’s “jump ahead” is already enabling vulnerable service workers in grocery stores and restaurants to be tested.

The aim, Woods said in a press release about the funding approval, is to remove as many barriers to testing as possible for district residents and employees. Arguably among the greatest limitations preventing people from getting tested are misconceptions about the discomfort of the test and its availability.

“Anybody can do it, and I’ve talked to a number of friends over the last couple of days still under the impression you have to put a swab 12 inches up into your brain,” Kalbach said with a laugh. “We are here inviting anyone who lives or works in the district.”

The bottom line is that hospitals are safe to return to once again, Woods and Kalbach stressed. Because both the Mountain View and Los Gatos El Camino Hospital locations prepared for a surge in coronavirus cases that never materialized, the containment phase that followed mitigation efforts has been much smoother.

“We had respiratory clinics, accelerated care units, for anybody that had symptoms,” Woods said. “We have used that kind of process and workflow to be able to test patients very rapidly and quickly.”

Visitor policies at the hospitals have been relaxed, elective surgeries have resumed and emergency rooms are that much safer and able to protect medical staff and patients alike. Woods said those with respiratory symptoms will continue to be separated from other patients at El Camino Health facilities as an added safety precaution.

“The district has really helped enable us to identify and contain to stop the spread of the virus,” Woods said of the test funding.

Testing appointments are available 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays. To schedule an appointment, call 940-7022, ext. 4.

For testing location updates and more information, visit elcaminohealth.org.

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