The novel coronavirus may be spreading more rapidly in Beaver County than neighboring areas due in large part to construction and manufacturing workers, a doctor leading local testing told BeaverCountian.com today.
“We have had workers at large sites like the (Shell) cracker plant, and the glass company (Anchor Hocking), come back positive (in Beaver County),” Dr. Stacy Lane said. “While Pittsburgh infections are coming via travel, Beaver County is local transmission, community transmission of the virus.”
She said she expects to see a faster increase in Beaver County’s infection rates as a result, and has her staff doing as much testing as possible. So far, the state has identified 13 cases in Beaver County. Lane warned that the next two weeks are critical in managing the number of fatalities and urged people to stay home.
Lane is founder and owner of the Central Outreach Wellness Center (COWC), a small private healthcare network with 58 employees working out of three locations, including its newest in Aliquippa.
Lane was the first to provide drive-by testing for COVID-19 in Beaver and Allegheny counties, and she continues to be responsible for a large percentage of new cases being identified.
“We have almost all of our staff in the Aliquippa office on this testing project now,” Lane said. The number of tests she conducts depends on how many she can get her hands on from Quest Diagnostics, a number that varies by the day.
It’s a big job.
“We’re trying to test, call people with their results, and provide guidance to patients,” she said. What she’s seen so far has led her to make some general observations of Beaver County’s situation.
“Much of what I think is anecdotal and going on my own experience from what I’m seeing. I can’t prove this from a scientific standpoint,” Lane said. “But what I am seeing is most people who I am testing that come back positive in Pittsburgh are people who have travel-related exposure, people with direct contact to New York or who came home from college, or some other known hotbed.
“But in Beaver County there is much, much less of that. People testing positive in Beaver County are basically Western PA folks who haven’t been anywhere else.”
As the disease began to spread, Lane watched the large healthcare networks, like UPMC and Heritage Valley, slowly begin organizing testing efforts that require patients to get an order from in-network physicians.
COWC normally caters to traditionally disenfranchised populations, including members of the LGBTQ community and those with substance use disorders. Believing her group could make a difference in the coronavirus pandemic, Lane jumped into action and began offering drive-by testing in Aliquippa and a location in Pittsburgh, without a doctor’s prior authorization or required health insurance.
“We do a lot of screening for HIV and Hepatitis C, so we already had nine mobile units that were fully staffed,” Lane said. “I knew this is what we needed to be doing. Since we are so small we can pivot very easily if we need to, because we don’t need a lot of meetings to happen. I can just point in a direction and say let’s go.”
Lane’s work quickly caught the attention of U.S. Sen. Bob Casey’s office, which made sure she had priority access to testing kits, that are in great demand but short supply.
“We are getting the testing done fast, we’re following CDC guidelines with who we test, and we’re providing testing for people even if they don’t have health insurance,” Lane said. “Sen. Casey’s office realized that was the right approach.
“We focus on being a stop-gap for the community’s medical needs. We know from our work that a lot of people don’t have primary care doctors. That’s not the world many people live in.
“Maybe they’re young and healthy and never bothered to get a primary care physician and have never met with a doctor, or maybe they’re older but don’t have health insurance at all. We deal with these people every day so we recognized early on that these were the people we needed to target with COVID-19 testing.”
“I’m an infectious disease expert, I watch this stuff happen in other places, in faraway countries,” Lane said. “Now I saw it was happening here.”
Lane and her staff screen patients who show up at their location before agreeing to test them for the coronavirus. Do they have a fever? Do they have a dry cough?
“Everybody has to have symptoms which are in the CDC guidelines to test,” said Lane. “You have to have the fever and the cough. Are we missing people because of that? Yes, we know we are. We’re probably missing 10 percent of people by requiring a fever because they don’t have it, based on the data we’re seeing in other countries.
“There are a myriad of possible symptoms, and I think it’s very hard clinically to decide who has the flu verses who has COVID-19. Even with our prescreening, we are still only getting about a 7.5 percent positive rate with our testing, which means there are a ton of people in Beaver and Allegheny county who have fevers and coughs but who do not have coronavirus.”
With social distancing in place, non-life-sustaining businesses shut down by orders of the governor, and people out of work, many want an answer to the same question:
When and how does this all end?
Lane does not have good news to share, but believes transparency is necessary to get the public to take seriously the guidance they’re getting from officials.
“There’s a good chance that a lot of us are going to have to get this. I think logistically it’s not going to be possible to get a vaccine out in time. I pray to God I’m proven wrong, but we just don’t have that kind of time,” she said.
“We are going to have to develop herd immunity, which means enough people have gotten the virus that statistically those left won’t contract it very often because it can’t spread as easily. Really right now that’s the goal, is for us as a community and country to get immunity to this.”
That immunity will come at the cost of widespread sickness and tragic deaths, she said.
“Everyone has heard of ‘flattening the curve’ by now. We need everyone to get sick slowly over time instead of all at once. If everybody runs out and buys toilet paper at the same time, the shelves will be empty and people who need toilet paper won’t be able to get it. The same thing could happen with ventilators, but with much more tragic results. This is the real reason we want you to please, please, stay home.”
Lane said the next two weeks will be critical, and should begin to show what kind of effect public policies have played on flattening that curve. She fears there are a lot of people who are not taking this virus seriously enough.
“This is not the flu, it’s nothing like it,” she said.
“The scary part about this is it seems to be all over the place. Some people, especially children, have very minor symptoms and most are recovering great from this. Although there are exceptions. For many people, they will get a fever and have a dry cough and then get better. But if shortness of breath begins to develop, it can get really bad.”
Really bad, according to Lane, is developing Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS).
“It becomes very hard to ventilate your lungs, because they start to become fibrotic, they harden. Then it takes a high-pressure ventilation and in some cases ventilators that even move you around to ventilate different areas of your lungs. If this happens to you, it’s going to be bad.”
With the best of care, Lane said the death rate of those who contract the virus appears to be hovering around 2 percent at this point. However, if the healthcare system becomes overloaded, that number would start to grow dramatically.
“It’s many more times the risk of death than the flu,” said Lane.
“It’s going to be scary. I think right now it’s hard to know who will get through this and who will not. I think there are going to be many deaths. It’s going to be the elderly and probably some tragic young deaths that will be much, much rarer. I am hopeful and trust that the American health system will prevail.”
Lane’s message is clear. The difference between mass death and mitigated crisis is up to each of us.
Stay home. Stay home. Stay home.