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Staff photo by Tim Barber/ Chattanooga's vehicle emissions testing site on Bonnyshire Drive off of Bonny Oaks Drive has been temporarily repurposed as a site for COVID-19 testing. The facility currently serves people by appointment Monday through Friday from 9-11:45 a.m.

Since the ability to test for COVID-19 reached Hamilton County, residents have been told they must meet strict criteria to qualify. But now the health department will swab citizens and test the sample for free without a physician's referral or symptoms.

People still need to call and schedule an appointment, but Hamilton County Health Department Administrator Becky Barnes said the department's drive-thru testing facility on Bonnyshire Drive has not been full since it opened nearly two weeks ago.

"Every single day, we've had more capacity to test people that have been referred," Barnes told the Times Free Press on Wednesday afternoon, just before the decision was announced publicly. "So, we as a health department realized we have the capacity."

Officials say widespread community testing is needed to provide data for informed decision making, including when to reopen parts of the economy.

"Until there is a vaccine for COVID-19, quickly detecting this illness, isolating if ill and practicing social distancing are the most powerful tools we have to stop the spread and help our state return to work," Dr. Lisa Piercey, Tennessee Department of Health commissioner, said in a news release. "I encourage every Tennessean to remember: 'when in doubt, get a test' as we work to identify COVID-19 cases and keep our neighbors safe."

Saving COVID-19 tests for the sickest patients was an effort to conserve limited supplies for the people who needed them the most, and frustrations over limited testing availability have plagued Hamilton County residents and medical providers since the early days of the pandemic.

Some people believe they may have had the virus, but since they didn't meet the classic symptom profile or weren't admitted to a hospital, they were unable to get tested.

"Since the pandemic began, there's been lots of unknowns and one of the big unknowns is how much spread of the virus is being triggered by people who are asymptomatic," Barnes said at a news conference Thursday. "We hope this helps us to detect more cases if they're out there, detect them earlier and take necessary steps to quarantine and prevent the spread of the virus throughout our community."

The county's testing will detect only current COVID-19 infections and doesn't include testing for antibodies that would signal a past infection. Barnes said that's because there are still too many unknowns about antibody testing and how immunity works for recovered coronavirus patients.

People who test negative should still take precautions against the disease, she said.

"The test is a point in time. You don't have it today. That could change with your exposure," she said.

Barnes said the change in policy also will help reach people who don't have health insurance or a regular medical provider.

Clinica Medicos, which recently joined forces with the health department to bring testing to underserved populations, will also be able to join in testing people without symptoms contingent upon the availability of testing supplies through the partnership with the health department.

Hamilton County's policy change came the same day that the state announced an aggressive, statewide, free testing effort of its own.

In Hamilton County, local hospitals and health care providers can still refer a patient to the health department for free testing services.

To access health department testing, interested individuals can call 423-209-8393 to schedule an appointment. Patients then show up at their appointed time to the testing site located at the Emissions Testing Center, 7460 Bonnyshire Drive.

When an individual is tested, whether self-referred or by a provider, they are presumed to be positive until they get a negative test result. During this waiting time, the person is required to return straight home and self-isolate. Test results are usually available in 24 hours, according to health department officials.

If the test result is positive, the health department will contact the patient, advise of the next steps and coordinate care, so it's important to give correct contact information.

Patients will be notified of negative test results by health department staff, officials said.

Private providers of testing will continue to operate according to their own policies.

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

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