With case numbers of COVID-19 rising in both Gulf and Franklin counties, health department officials are stepping up testing options throughout the Forgotten Coast.
“We did expect to see a climb in cases and especially with holiday season. We expect the new variant to be present in our communities just like the rest of the country,” said Sarah Quaranta, administrator of the Florida Department of Health in Franklin and Gulf Counties.
“The same public health messages remain: Stay home when you are not feeling well so you don’t spread your germs to others,” she said. “The COVID-19 vaccine is still available to those eligible at no cost, including boosters.”
The health department has an arrangement with Nomi Health to provide testing in both counties.
The free tests can be obtained at the health department locations in Wewahitchka and Carrabelle on Tuesdays and Thursdays; and in Apalachicola and Port St. Joe on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. This rapid testing does not require a physician order.
The testing is usually done as drive-through at these four health departments, although in Apalachicola it’s right next door, at the front circle near the entrance of Weems Memorial Hospital.
To pre-register for an appointment, call Nomi Health at (904) 295-0562 or visit http://testing.nomihealth.com/signup/fl. Walk-ups are also accepted.
The county health department is also providing free BinaxNow Home test kits, one per person, at their locations, while supplies last. This test must be completed using the NAVICA app, which the user can download and create an account. A proctor will then do an online appointment with them and walk them through the testing process.
To pick up a test kit, please come to the health department. But ff you are experiencing symptoms of COVID 19 please do not come inside, stay in your car and call 850-323-6011. A nurse will walk the kit out to your car.
Both area hospitals are providing testing as well, although a physician’s order is needed.
Ascension Sacred Heart Gulf provides access to COVID-19 testing at its lab, which is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with no appointment required.
“Results will be sent to the ordering provider as soon as they are available,” said Heather Kretzer, a spokeswoman for Ascension Florida and Gulf Coast. “Please do not call the lab for results. This will allow the staff to focus on testing and providing results to ordering providers so that they can give care instructions to their patients.”
Weems East Clinic in Carrabelle and Weems West Clinic in Apalachicola are both doing testing as well.
These nasal swab PCR tests, though, have a two to three-day turnaround, because the hospital has a limited supply of the rapid testing option.
“We will be ordering more rapid tests as soon as available,” said David Walker, Weems CEO.
He said Nomi testing in the breezeway in front of the hospital has fluctuated between strong demand and less busy days.
“We had 80 Wednesday in Apalachicola, that’s what the lady doing the testing told me,” he said
Walker said the hospital emergency room appears to be seeing fewer serious cases than it did when the delta variant raged.
“With the delta variant we had to hospitalize more, and now we’re not seeing it. The demand for vaccinations went down a little and now with omicron, they may want it.” he said.
“Based on the experiences in other countries and in other states that have been hit by this variant, we are optimistic that the omicron variant will result in less severe illness,” said Mary C. Mayhew, president and CEO of the Florida Hospital Association.
“Unfortunately, omicron appears to be more contagious and still could lead to increased hospitalizations simply because of the volume of individuals affected,” she said.
Numbers from the Centers for Disease Control show that in the last week, Franklin had 22 cases, with a positivity test rate of nearly 30 percent. In Gulf there were 38 cases, with a 22.5 percent positivity rate with testing.
Gulf has 52 percent of its people fully vaccinated, while Franklin is just shy of 49 percent.
For those who have yet to be vaccinated, Weems West in Apalachicola is holding a vaccine clinic on Monday, Jan. 17 at 9 a.m.
As coronavirus cases continue a sharp increase, Gov. Ron DeSantis is emphasizing a “seniors first” approach to testing.
The governor and state Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo are discouraging mass testing of people who do not have symptoms and are younger and have fewer risk factors. That was reflected in the testing guidelines published Thursday.
In a one-page document, the health department said people who are 65 or older, have chronic medical conditions or are pregnant or were recently pregnant face increased risks. The guidelines said such people should get tested for coronavirus “soon after symptom onset” and should “seek early monoclonal antibody or antiviral drug treatment and seek other medical treatment as necessary.”
People who have COVID-19 symptoms but no significant risk factors should consider getting tested after the onset of symptoms, the guidance said, but should “seek medical treatment only when necessary.”
For people with no symptoms who suspect they may have been exposed to COVID-19, “testing is unlikely to have any clinical benefits,” according to the guidelines.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this article