Private doctor begins COVID-19 testing in Calexico

Dr. Tien Vo (right) collects a swab for COVID-19 testing from an individual on Wednesday in the parking lot of his medical center in Calexico. JULIO MORALES PHOTO

CALEXICO – The Calexico clinic of a private primary care physician started providing COVID-19 testing for local individuals who have been prescreened by clinicians and have met certain criteria.

Dr. Tien Vo said he has the capacity to test about between 20 to 50 pre-screened individuals daily and has tested on average about 15 to 20 patients a day since Monday.

The majority of those tested have been referred to Vo by other local health care providers, and have included some of his own patients, Vo stated in an email.

“We have enough test kits to run for the next four to eight weeks, and more depending on the volume of patients,” Vo said.

The testing is done outdoors in a so-called “drive-thru” process in Vo’s medical clinic parking lot on Cole Road. Patients are directed to remain in their car and be prepared to show photo ID and insurance card.

Patients will have their nose or throat swabbed. The location of the swabbing depends on which test kits are available, and patients will not be able to choose their preference.

Test results are expected between two to four days after a swab is collected and are determined by a Quest Diagnostics lab in San Diego, which also is tasked with transporting the collected swabs from the clinic.

“Our clinicians will call you with results via tele-visit,” Vo said. “Please do not come to our facility for test results.”

In order to be tested, all individuals must be pre-screened by a local health care provider and determined to have met the criteria to warrant the test, Vo stated.

His office is offering telemedicine intake screenings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Individuals who are displaying symptoms of respiratory illness can set up a telehealth appointment by calling the clinic at (760) 352-2551.

To access the telehealth platform, one will need an electronic device, such as a laptop, cellphone or desktop computer, with webcam and speakers.

A link will be sent to prospective patients’ phone or email. Once the link is opened, patients will be prompted to enter their name and enable their device’s camera and audio capabilities. The screening takes place in real time with clinic staff and lasts about 15 minutes.

Vo is encouraging those who are urgently sick and suffering from extreme shortness of breath, persistent pain or pressure in one’s chest, bluish lips or face, to go to an emergency room immediately.

Those who have been tested are encouraged to self-quarantine until they receive their test results.

Individuals who are mildly ill with COVID-19 are able to isolate at home during their illness, Vo stated. They should restrict activities outside their home, except for getting medical care.

Public places should be avoided, including work or school, as well as public transportation, ride sharing, and taxis. Interaction with other people and animals should also be restricted.

“You should stay in a specific room and away from other people in your home,” Vo said. “Also you should use a separate bathroom, if available.”

Vo said he obtained the test kits from Cepheid, a Sunnyvale-based company that the clinic had been working with since early last year to conduct influenza PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing for its patients.

The two machines the clinic acquired last year for its laboratory were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Friday for testing of SARS-CoV-2, which causes the COVID-19 disease.

Vo expressed hope that the clinic will soon acquire additional resources to be able to test the collected swabs in-house. During the drive-thru testing, Vo, as a team lead, is directly doing the sample collection.

“We gown up in proper personal protective gear to protect our patients, ourselves and our staff from getting transmitted,” he said.

Although Vo has medical offices in El Centro, the Calexico location has a larger parking lot that allows his staff to safely interact with those seeking testing without placing other urgent care patients potentially in harm’s way. Although its urgent care center remains open until 8 p.m., the drive-thru testing is done after the clinic has closed for the day.

The clinic’s efforts have been praised by city officials and the Heffernan Memorial Healthcare District, which considers the medical center a strategic partner and has been providing PPE to its staff. The district is also in the process of obtaining self-contained breathing apparatus for use by Vo’s clinic.

“Right now the pressing issue is testing people and getting them taken care of,” said HMHD Executive Manager Tomas Virgen. “Getting the test anywhere else is a nightmare.”

At 3 p.m. Saturday, the clinic will host a live Q&A session related to COVID-19 testing and treatment on its Facebook page, Vo Medical Center.

“It’s a gift that we have him here in Calexico,” said Mayor Bill Hodge.

Since Vo has elected to use a private commercial laboratory to test the samples, he is not obligated to report to county public health officials the number of tests that the clinic has administered. He is required to report positive cases of certain communicable diseases, such as COVID-19.

The county Public Health Department only receives information on test results — both positive and negative — for samples submitted by both local hospitals for testing to the San Diego County public health laboratory.

The tests by the SDC lab are done for individuals who meet the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s criteria for Persons Under Investigation for COVID-19, said Linsey Dale, county public information officer.

The COVID-19 results reported to date on the county Public Health Department’s website (www.icphd.org) include all positive cases for both hospitals and private providers. The negative results include all reported by the SDC lab and some reported by commercial laboratories as well as other health care facilities out of county, Dale stated in an email.

As of Wednesday evening, more than 433,000 people in the U.S. had been tested for COVID-19, according to the COVID Tracking Project website. 

About 65,000 Americans have been sickened by the disease, while deaths have surpassed more than 900, according to media reports.  

Staff Writer Julio Morales can be reached at jmorales@ivpressonline.com or 760-337-3415.

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