Free COVID-19 testing site opening in Lawrence; officials give vaccine updates

photo by: Screenshot/COVID-19 panel Zoom meeting

Douglas County hosted a virtual panel about COVID-19 testing, vaccines and equity on Jan. 28.

A COVID-19 testing site will open Tuesday in Lawrence for any Douglas County resident in need of a free test.

Ruaa Hassaballa shared the news in a Thursday evening panel discussion put on by Unified Command to discuss COVID-19 testing, vaccines and equity.

“We’re really excited that Douglas County is going to start having a WellHealth site,” said Hassaballa, the COVID testing equity project manager at Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health. “We know that our neighboring counties have had a WellHealth site, and so that will be available for our community.”

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment has partnered with WellHealth, which offers free testing in five states, including Kansas. Surrounding Douglas County, there are currently sites in Shawnee, Johnson and Franklin Counties. The Douglas County site will open Tuesday at Walmart, 3300 Iowa St.

The site will be open Mondays through Saturdays from 9 to 5:30, and there will be drive-thru and walk-up options. Appointments can be made at or by walking up to the site. The tests will be saliva-based PCR tests, and residents should not eat, drink or use tobacco for 30 minutes prior to receiving a test. Testing is free and does not require insurance or identification. Additionally, one does not need to have been exposed to the virus or be exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 to sign up for a test.

Hassaballa said the health department plans to share more information about the site on Friday.

Four other panelists joined Hassaballa Thursday night for the COVID-19 panel discussion. They were Jennifer Schrimsher, an infectious disease doctor at LMH Health, Tiffany Lewis, chief operations officer at Heartland Community Health Center, Brian Bradfield, Associate Vice President of Ancillary Services at LMH Health and Sarah Plinsky, county administrator and a member of senior leadership for Unified Command. The event was conducted in a question and answer format, with both live and pre-submitted questions.

In response to a question about which organizations are administering vaccines, Lewis stated that there are currently only four: LMH Health, Heartland Community Health Center, Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health and Haskell Indian Health Center.

Bradfield said there’s not a pressing need to have more distribution sites at this time, due to the low volume of vaccine coming in from the state. Having just four sites keeps vaccine distribution “focused and centralized” and “allows us to leverage those doses,” he said.

“As we start to see an increase in the distribution you’ll start to see an increase in the number of organizations that will be distributing the vaccinations,” Bradfield said. “As of yesterday, there were 50 organizations on the vaccination distribution list that have registered, so as more doses come out we’ll be accessing more facilities and seeing that distribution rise.”

That means that Douglas County residents should not call their physicians’ offices to see if they can get a vaccine, Bradfield said. Many physicians’ offices have registered to be a vaccination site, but they will not become one until the county receives more vaccines.

The best way to ensure you can get a vaccine is to fill out the Douglas County vaccine interest form. If residents do not have internet access or have difficulty filling out the form, they can contact the Senior Resource Center at 785-842-0543.

Plinsky stated that about 40,000 people fall into Phase 2 in Douglas County, and that the amount of vaccine the county is currently receiving from the state is low. Plinsky said the county is receiving less than 1,000 doses a week. (In a phone interview with the Journal-World on Thursday afternoon, Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health Director Dan Partridge said the county has been receiving between 1,000 and 3,000 doses each week.)

Despite the low numbers, Plinsky said “I have every hope and assurance that the amount of vaccine will increase soon, and I’m really excited about that and I think it will be something we all desperately need.”

In response to a question about what one needs to bring to a vaccine clinic, Lewis said residents should bring a form of photo identification and an insurance card. But if someone does not have insurance, they will not be turned away and are encouraged to receive the vaccine. Bradfield added that those receiving the vaccine through the hospital’s drive-thru clinic should wear a short sleeve shirt.

One participant asked the panel what the county’s plan is to ensure it isn’t wasting any vaccines. Lewis explained that the vaccines comes grouped together in one vial, typically in groups of 10 or 6.

Bradfield said that the hospital, health department and Heartland are working together to make sure no doses are wasted. If someone shows up for an appointment at the end of the day and the health department, for example, has to open a new vial to get a vaccine for that person, they might end up with extra doses. So all three groups coordinate at the end of each night and say how many extra doses they have. Then, the organizations will take their call list and tell qualifying individuals where they need to go.

“So I believe at this point in time that we have had zero wasted doses outside of either having issues with the vial or with needles or equipment,” Bradfield said. But in instances where there were leftover doses, “we have found qualified patients that actually receive those doses. So I think it’s been a really good collaborative group effort across the community to make sure that they’re going in deltoids and not in trash cans.”

Lewis closed the panel by asking the community for grace as county leadership navigates the process.

“Decisions that were made yesterday have changed today. So this team is constantly pivoting. I think we’ve all been on a merry-go-round for the last 48 hours,” she said. “So just remember that our community is only as strong as we are together.


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