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Cleveland Clinic folds its testing tent, but warns against relaxing social distancing

Photo: Chief medical officer Dr. David Peter

Twelve weeks after Cleveland Clinic Indian River unveiled its drive-through testing process for COVID-19, the hospital has taken down its tent. But it’s hardly due to lack of people wanting to be tested.

In fact, demand has continued to increase – but testing has been moved indoors as a result of concern over the fact that hurricane season has started. As one official put it, “tents and hurricanes don’t mix well.”

Cleveland Clinic has handled the great majority of testing in Indian River County – conducting more than 5,525 tests for COVID-19 out of 7,000 done here to date. 

And while the hospital still limits testing to people with symptoms, in accordance with CDC and Health Department guidelines, chief medical officer Dr. David Peter notes free COVID-19 testing for people with no symptoms is now offered in Gifford, Fellsmere and Oslo by Treasure Coast Community Health. 

In addition, the hospital itself is conducting asymptomatic testing on all surgical patients and other patients admitted to the hospital.

It is also testing all patients who arrive at the emergency department from nursing homes and assisted living facilities. For those patients, the hospital uses the two-hour test by Cepheid, known for its reliability.

Any long-term-care facility patient admitted with COVID-19 must test negative twice before being allowed to return to the facility.

“The only exception to that is that a few of the congregate living facilities have set up special units where they can accept COVID-19 positive patients and manage them, consistent with the Florida guidelines,” said Peter, who coordinates a weekly conference call with the county’s assisted living facilities and skilled nursing facilities. 

Over the past two months, Indian River County’s COVID-19 patients were hospitalized at a rate 22 percent higher than that of the rest of the state, with a total of 36 COVID-19 patients hospitalized at some point since the first case here in March.

Only six COVID-19 patients were still hospitalized in Indian River County as of Sunday, according to the Florida Department of Health, but Peter and other hospital officials are concerned that the respite in COVID-19 admissions may not hold if people let down their guard at this fragile point on what could be a long pandemic timeline.

“We are watching. The time for social distancing is now,” said Peter last week in an hour-long phone interview with Vero Beach 32963.

“There is a modest increase right at this time, which is most likely related to the fact that folks are becoming a little more relaxed. We want to continue those [social distancing] practices as much as possible, and we are certainly encouraging everyone to wear masks in public. Masks are highly effective in helping to reduce the transmission of COVID-19.”

Peter fears people are not washing their hands as much as they did earlier in the outbreak. “We can see in the community people becoming more lax around those practices,” he said. “Now is the time to be more diligent, more dedicated to those practices, not less so.”

Should there continue to be significant numbers of cases from the reopening of businesses and activities, he said the hospital is in a better position to handle it since Vero’s busiest season has ended. “We’re a little bit out of the main season and that probably gives us more flexibility,” he said.

Peter said Cleveland Clinic Indian River is prepared to handle a possible second surge just as it handled the first. “As a hospital we always have preparedness plans whether it’s COVID or a disaster like a hurricane. We came into COVID very prepared to manage all the issues. 

“Having said that, we certainly have more experience with COVID at this point. I think we’re very prepared for a surge. We know exactly what we would do and how we would do it.”