NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - The public health department in New Hanover County will implement “one of the most extensive and aggressive” COVID-19 testing programs in North Carolina, beginning Monday, according to county officials.
People who are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 can call the coronavirus call center at 910-798-6800 to be screened by a nurse. If you then meet the criteria after that screening, you will be referred to a drive-through location in downtown Wilmington next to the Schwartz Center at a certain day and time for the actual test at no cost.
The screening process will give people with mild symptoms the opportunity to be tested, which is considered less restrictive than current state and CDC standards.
“This is the most extensive and aggressive testing effort by any county in North Carolina that we are aware of; and our team has been working diligently to bring this valuable resource to our residents – so we can increase our knowledge of the impact of COVID-19 in our community as well as extend care and support to those who are ill,” said New Hanover County Board of Commissioners Chair Julia Olson-Boseman during a Monday morning news conference.
“This testing is for anyone who is experiencing symptoms, but it’s especially important for those who don’t have insurance, or who lack access to health care, because they can be tested at no cost with the support from our Public Health staff that they need," said Olson-Boseman.
The county has the capacity to test up to 2,400 people (or roughly 1% of the county’s population) over the next four weeks. This is on top of the testing being done by local providers. According to the US Census Bureau, there were more than 234,000 people living in New Hanover County as of 2019.
Eligible residents for this type of screening will include people who are experiencing symptoms, having limited or no access to healthcare and got the pre-screening through the call center. According to the CDC, symptoms can include fever, cough, shortness of breath, chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat and a new loss of taste or smell.
Lisa Brown, public health preparedness coordinator for New Hanover County, said that once an individual tests positive, contact tracing will begin. The county will use this data to determine how prevalent COVID-19 is in the community and if the county’s mitigation efforts need to be altered.
“As of [Monday morning], we have had 79 lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in New Hanover County. But we know that this number of lab-confirmed cases is not the full picture of COVID-19 in the community,” Brown said.
Brown added that the testing recommendations from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services have focused on testing people who were at high-risk of serious illness, people who work in high-risk settings like long-term care and health care facilities and people facing severe symptoms.
“So, we know many minor cases of COVID-19 in New Hanover County are not known by public health. This lack of visibility about where this virus is and isn’t limits our ability to follow up with contact tracing when needed. And that’s why expanded diagnostic testing in our area is so important for a step for New Hanover County,” Brown said.
Olson-Boseman said that as of 11 a.m. Monday, the call center has taken 50 calls and has scheduled 31 testing appointments.
As a reminder, the coronavirus call center’s number is 910-798-6800 and the center will be open Monday-Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo also announced that an anonymous donor from the area business community made a donation of 10,000 antibody test kits and 5,000 N95 masks.
“This is a great example of when the private sector and the public sector come together to do great things,” Saffo said.
Brown said scientists are working to determine if the presence of COVID-19 antibodies confers immunity to the virus – and if so, to what extent.
The health department is still working on a plan to perform the antibody tests throughout the community, but Brown says they will first be offered on the 79-lab confirmed positive cases.
Brown says in addition to expanded testing capacity, these tests will help in the fight against COVID-19.
“It could help us determine if someone could potentially had COVID-19 even though they were unable to be tested at the time they were sick or they never even had symptoms. Targeted antibody testing might also be able to tell us very quickly, in a matter of 15 minutes or so, whether someone is in a high-risk setting,” Brown said.