Emergency services assumes COVID testing duties

Covid testing in front of the Macon County Sheriff Dept. photo by Vickie Carpenter

Brittney Lofthouse – Contributing Writer

During the January meeting of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, county leaders expressed concerns posted by citizens surrounding COVID19 testing and vaccination being handled by the Public Health Department. With limited staffing, health department director Kathy McGaha told the county that in order to change things, the health department needed additional support. 

That got the wheels turning for Macon County Emergency Services to take over COVID19 testing for the county — to free up staff and time at the health department to focus on vaccine administration. 

Macon County Emergency Management Director Warren Cabe updated commissioners last Thursday and reported that since assuming COVID testing duties at the public health department on Jan. 21, testing is now being conducted five days per week and is now housed in a drive-thru operation routed in front of the Sheriff’s Office under a canopy separate from the vaccination site. 

“We have been able to double COVID19 testing appointments scheduled from 16 per hour to 32 per hour with the capability of expanding to 40 per hour if needed,” said Cabe. 

Since taking over, Cabe reported that EMS had averaged administering 42 COVID tests per day with a total of 481 administered as of Feb. 3. 

Staffing for the COVID19 testing site is provided by Emergency Management, EMS, fire, veterans services, code enforcement, and the dental clinic staff. 

Cabe also noted that his department has established the drive-thru to also be able to administer vaccines, once additional supplies are made available from the state. 

“The drive-thru COVID test site has been modified slightly so once we get an adequate supply of vaccine, we can administer COVID vaccinations after all testing appointments are fulfilled each day,” said Cabe. “This should allow one to two hours for testing each day and the remainder of the day open for vaccinations, in additional to the regular vaccination line.”

EMS and Emergency Services have also been able to staff the observation section of the regular vaccination drive-thru line with a full ambulance crew and operations support staff for the health department as well. 

The additional work by EMS has not impacted regular operations for the county’s EMS support. 

“None of our regular daily ambulance staffing assignments (five ambulance crews and one EMS supervisor) have been affected by the additional staffing,” said Cabe. “All other duties have been filled by part-time or off-duty full-time EMS staff.” 

Cabe said that his department has also developed a plan to administer COVID vaccinations to home bound individuals with the assistance of Senior Services, the health department, EMS, and the Highlands-Cashiers Community Vaccination Clinic.

Not only will EMS also continue to help Highlands with their walk-in clinics when supplies allow, but Cabe noted that a plan for a walk-in clinic for the Franklin area has been developed for when supplies are available. 

While EMS is now managing the testing site for Macon County — a newly developed call center has been launched to accommodate the volume of calls the county is receiving for both vaccines and testing appointments. 

“At the Board of Commissioners meeting on Jan. 12, Macon County, like all counties across the state and nation was in the infancy stage of the vaccination process,” said Macon County Manager Derek Roland. “Similar to every other aspect COVID-19 pandemic, a vaccination process of this magnitude was a first for this organization. The moment vaccine becames available, our phone system was overwhelmed with calls to the testing and vaccination call center.  In the days, leading up to the Jan. 12, meeting, call volume was exceeding 500 calls per hour, every hour, every day.  This resulted in a complete shutdown of the entire county phone system for hours and sometimes days at a time.

After the call center — which was opened with the help of local business owner Phil Drake – was launched, the 45-minute wait time is now less than four seconds a call. 

“Thanks to Phil Drake who has graciously allowed the county to establish a call center at his training and education building, providing us with equipment, technical assistance and even fully staffing the call center with his employees. This partnership has been an absolute game changer,” said Roland.

The call centers have been staffed using county employees from multiple other departments, in addition to five part-time employees who were hired and started work the week of Jan. 18. The call centers are in operation from 8-5, 5 days per week.  Call (828)349-2517 for  testing and (828)524-1500 for vaccinations.