Southeast Georgia Health System started screening potential COVID-19 patients over the phone on Monday, seeing the demand for the service as soon as the lines opened.

“We had over 40 calls from symptomatic patients,” said Adam Brown, director of physician practices at SGHS. “Many were not experiencing COVID-19 symptoms when we talked to them, but we did send some for COVID-19 testing. Others were scheduled appointments with primary care providers, and we provided some telehealth visits. There were more calls that were inquisitive in nature and were in addition to the 40.”

When it comes to a contagious illness, containment is the best solution, said Dr. Daniel Miller, an emergency medicine physician with Glynn Immediate Care Center.

“For this reason, Southeast Georgia Health System rapidly mobilized resources to roll out a screening hotline that will address public concerns and help local medical providers identify who needs testing, who can quarantine at home and who needs immediate medical attention,” Miller said.

The hotline number is 912-466-7222 and is open Monday to Friday from 8 a.m to 5 p.m.

Hospital officials ask that the public get screened before showing up at the hospital seeking treatment. It will help reduce the number of avenues the disease has to spread and avoid putting unnecessary strain on the health system’s resources.

Another reason for screening before testing is because, oftentimes, someone could simply have the flu or common cold, and ruling such cases out early can significantly reduce the burden on the health care system.

“Coronavirus affects the lungs and chest more than other seasonal ailments,” said Dr. Steven Mosher, infectious disease specialist at the Brunswick hospital. “The most common symptoms are fever and a dry cough. Seek immediate medical care if you experience shortness of breath, rapid breathing, chest pain or pressure and confusion.

“But call before going to your doctor’s office, urgent care or emergency care center. They’ll ask certain questions to determine if you need testing and will give you directions on how to avoid exposing others when you arrive.”

Most of the symptoms observed in COVID-19 patients cross over with the two more common illnesses, Mosher explained, but shortness of breath along with those symptoms is the real concern.

“Most flu sufferers experience exhaustion, sore throat, fever, heavy coughing, aches and pains and headache,” Mosher said. “Depending on the flu strain, you might get a stuffy nose and sneezing, too. However, unlike COVID-19, there is rarely shortness of breath.”

The real hallmarks to look out for are coughing, fever or shortness of breath coupled with exposure to a confirmed COVID-19 patient within the last two weeks, recent travel to an affected area or underlying medical conditions, Mosher said.

Sean Bear, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Public Health, said most health care facilities simply don’t have the resources to test everyone.

“The expanding COVID-19 pandemic has and will continue to impact inventories of personal protective equipment and laboratory testing supplies,” said Bear. “As such, we can best protect our communities and health care providers by only testing those whose laboratory diagnosis would have the biggest impact on health care infrastructure or spread of disease.”

The illness is a drain on protective equipment supplies, Bear said, so health care providers are focusing on testing people for whom a positive diagnosis “would have the biggest impact on health care infrastructure or spread of disease.”

“This includes hospitalized patients with severe illness, health care workers and other first responders who are critical for caring for our nation during this epidemic, people working with and caring for vulnerable populations (such as long-term care facility staff), and people living in congregate settings where the disease can spread rapidly,” Bear said.

It’s just not feasible to test every single person due to how widespread the outbreak could be, he said.

“Because of the ongoing community spread of novel coronavirus, individuals who develop a temperature that is above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or symptoms of cough or shortness of breath are to be considered a person with suspected COVID-19 and should follow the requirements for isolation,” Bear said.

“If symptoms progress to the point of requiring medical intervention, please call your health care provider or emergency department before arriving to notify them of your symptoms and suspected illness.”

The health department also has a hotline anyone can call if they suspect they may have contracted the disease — 844-442-2681.

The Centers for Disease Control offers an online symptom checker at that will recommend either seeking medical help or staying at home if one has COVID-19 symptoms.

The health department, Brunswick hospital and CDC all say simple measures used to ward off the flu are also effective in keeping COVID-free.

Residents should wash their hands regularly with soap and water, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if necessary, avoid touching the face, clean frequently-touched surfaces, cover coughs and sneezes, immediately throw away used tissues and stay home if feeling sick.

Alternatively, one could seek a test at a commercial clinic.

“At present, we’re not declining anybody. We have a good number of tests,” said Elizabeth Fletcher, clinical coordinator at ERgent Med’s St. Simons Island clinic. “If somebody has respiratory symptoms or a risk of possible exposure we will test.”

Fletcher said the clinic is careful to keep those coming in for coronavirus testing separate from other patients and protects their privacy.

As of Friday, the clinic had tested 150 patients and gotten 120 results back, she said, but would reveal little information about the patients the clinic has seen and declined to give the number of positive or negative results.

“I don’t want people to be afraid to get medical care,” Fletcher said. “I think our clinic probably has the best protocol in terms of check-in from your car, and we try to get people back as quickly as we can.”

The clinic recently began working with a new commercial laboratory, she said, and now gets its test results back within two to three days.

The procedure is currently categorized as a screening test, but Fletcher said that could change at any time given how quickly the situation with pandemic has moved.

Without insurance, the test would cost $151, she explained. The clinic charges $100 and the lab $51.

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In other COVID-19 news:

• The COVID-19 pandemic claimed its first victims in the Coastal Health District on Monday, both in Chatham County. An 83-year-old male and a 84-year-old female have died from the virus. A news release from the district said both had existing medical conditions.

• The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Glynn County jumped significantly Monday evening, leaping from 10 to 17 from noon to 7 p.m. In the Coastal Health District, Chatham County also saw an increase, climbing to 19 from 16. All counties in coastal are now reporting cases. Others include Camden, four; McIntosh, one; Liberty, 4; Long, one; Effingham, four; and Bryan, seven. The total number of confirmed cases in Georgia rose to 3,028, including 771 hospitalizations and 100 deaths.

• Along with its first reported case on Monday, McIntosh County is also imposing a curfew in the county from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. The city of Darien has adopted the same curfew for its residents.

• Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, urged Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to delay the May primary election by a month in light of the COVID-19 outbreak.

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