Hamilton County residents now able to get COVID-19 test without physician referral, symptoms

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Rae Young Bond, CEO of the Medical Society of Chattanooga and Hamilton County, speaks during a news conference at the McDaniel Building about the coronavirus on Thursday, March 12, 2020 in Chattanooga. Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, left, and Becky Barnes, administrator of health services for the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department, right, stand behind Bond.

Community testing for the coronavirus is improving but still needs to reach more people before local leaders feel comfortable loosening social restrictions, according to reports from the area's COVID-19 task force.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced a new campaign Wednesday to ramp up testing efforts across the state, and Hamilton County Health Department Administrator Becky Barnes said the county will begin conducting testing for people at its drive-thru facility on Bonnyshire Drive regardless of their symptoms and without a doctor's referral starting Thursday.

"It's the health department's assessment that we have more capacity now, and that we've had that capacity for about a week," Barnes said.

Up to this point, the county has required a physician's referral for COVID-19 testing at its drive-thru site and maintained that supplies were too limited to test people without symptoms, such as fever, cough and shortness of breath.

Even with the county's announcement, more widespread testing remains a key focus of the local task force. Private providers in Hamilton County still don't have enough resources to do widespread asymptomatic testing, task force Chairwoman Rae Bond said.

"For eventual recovery, we're going to need more community testing and hopefully get to the point where people who don't have symptoms can be tested," Bond said via teleconference Wednesday. "That's a big issue that we'll be following up with."

Supply shortages have hampered widespread testing across the country, forcing many providers to save testing supplies for the most vulnerable patients.

The local COVID-19 task force is comprised of health care leaders who advise the Chattanooga and Hamilton County mayors in their handling of the pandemic. The group is also collaborating with the city's data office to better track COVID-19.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.