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UF Health and state officials to bring coronavirus testing to underserved populations in Jacksonville

Published: April 7, 2020
Leon L. Haley Jr., M.D., M.H.S.A., CPE, FACEP
Ross E. Jones, M.D.

University of Florida Health is teaming up with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and local and state health and emergency management officials to begin offering COVID-19 testing for residents of the region who are at risk of being disproportionately affected by the coronavirus public health emergency.

Initial efforts will involve a team of 40 to 50 volunteer UF Health medical professionals, including UF Health physicians and nurses and UF medical student volunteers, who will evaluate up to about 2,000 people over the next few weeks — approximately 200 people this Wednesday and Friday, followed by another wave starting the week of April 13. To be eligible, they must be 65 or older or have a UF Health Jacksonville primary care physician.

They will be assessed for symptoms, travel and exposure history and tested if they meet clinical criteria. Depending on the severity of their illness, they could potentially be further evaluated on-site or at a UF Health facility or remain home to self-quarantine while awaiting test results.

If they are concerned yet do not have symptoms nor meet standard clinical testing criteria, they will have the opportunity to sign up for a UF research study that enables them to receive testing using a UF-developed COVID-19 test that is currently not FDA-approved, as part of an epidemiological protocol known as community surveillance. The purpose of the study is part of a valuable public health activity to identify people with early disease — those who have the virus but are not exhibiting symptoms — which can help guide recommendations to lessen the impact of the outbreak and, later, to identify when officials might be able to start lifting restrictions.

“The heart and soul of an academic health center like UF Health is a commitment to educate and serve under-resourced members of the community, especially in times of crisis,” said Leon L. Haley Jr., M.D., CEO of UF Health Jacksonville, vice president for health affairs and dean of the UF College of Medicine – Jacksonville. “Every day we make it our goal to put our passion and expertise to work for our patients, and that includes findings ways to support and compassionately care for the most vulnerable among us.”

Taking testing to or close to where people live gives many the ability to be screened who otherwise would not have easy access, said David R. Nelson, M.D., senior vice president for health affairs at UF and president of UF Health. Many of these individuals have health conditions like diabetes or heart disease that can complicate their course should they contract COVID-19, and they also often struggle with financial burdens and other socioeconomic factors that disproportionately impact their ability to navigate an outbreak of this nature, he added.

“Caring for our community is in our DNA,” Nelson said. “As an academic health center, our missions of patient care, teaching and research are fundamental to tackling the challenges many grapple with in the face of something like a global pandemic. Our faculty and staff are problem-solvers, and we are working tirelessly to find ways big and small to make a difference in this challenging time.”

Walk-up or drive-thru community-based screening for residents of The Oaks at Durkeeville and the surrounding area who are 65 or older or have a UF Health Jacksonville primary care physician will be available on a limited basis. Screening will begin Wednesday, April 8, from 9 a.m. to noon, and continue Friday, April 10, from 9 a.m. to noon and from 1 to 5 p.m. at the Emmett Reed Community Center in Jacksonville.

Dates and locations are subject to change based on weather and availability of testing materials. Residents can call 904-244-4420 to confirm details.

Criteria for testing in the clinical arm generally include having a fever, cough, shortness of breath and close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19.

The coronavirus research study is thought to be one of the largest of its kind in the United States, Nelson said.

“Research plays a crucial role in guiding policy and practice,” he added. “Our knowledge base about COVID-19 is still fairly limited, so the more we can learn through studies such as this one, the better we will be able to treat it and prevent its spread in the future.”

The medical community still has a lot to learn about the virus, and the factors that determine why some people become very sick, and others do not, said Ross Jones, M.D., M.P.H., medical director of community health at UF Health Jacksonville and medical director of the Total Care Clinic Group. Knowing more about who becomes ill and about their symptoms is important as health providers seek ways to better protect the community.

“People who are over the age of 60 are of particular concern, as well as individuals who do not traditionally have regular access to health care services, and who struggle with other socioeconomic inequities,” said Jones, also the director of Jacksonville’s Urban Health Alliance. “What we learn will help in management of this epidemic, as well as possible future epidemics.”

The move follows a similar effort to screen for the novel coronavirus that launched in The Villages on March 23 and is further supported by the health system’s recent rollout of in-house testing capabilities made possible through UF Health’s collaboration with the Florida Department of Health, which has helped the health system obtain critical testing kits and supplies. This in-house capability greatly speeds the delivery of results for UF Health patients in Alachua, Marion, Duval, Lake and Sumter counties as Florida battles the growing health emergency, officials said.

Being able to do tests internally means UF Health physicians and patients can get results within 24 hours, far faster than other methods of testing outside the health system, officials say.

“We’re now able to identify patients much more quickly who have been exposed or have the virus,” Nelson said. “And most important for us, we’ll be able to find out who needs to be quarantined and who their contacts were.”

UF Health employees are working in shifts around the clock, seven days a week, with additional technicians being trained to help meet demand, he said. However, the ability to meet testing demand is dependent on continuing to secure the supplies necessary to collect samples and process the testing kits.

Leon L. Haley Jr., M.D., M.H.S.A., CPE, FACEP
Ross E. Jones, M.D.

For more information, please contact:
UF Health Media Relations
904-244-3268