COVID testing site sees healthy numbers in first week back

A staff member collects a sample at the drive-up COVID-19 testing site on Monday at the south end of the Samaritan Health and Wellness Plaza on outer Washington Street in Watertown. Kara Dry/Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — Following the New York State Department of Health partnering with Jefferson County to open a free testing location at Samaritan Health’s drive-up testing site, 1575 Washington St., Samaritan has begun to see an eased COVID load on the emergency department and hasn’t called for medical diversion in about a week.

On Monday, the first day the site was back offering free testing, it saw about 40 people, according to Leslie M. DiStefano, director of communication and public relations at Samaritan. The trend continued for most of the week with the site averaging around 40 people a day, not counting surgical or symptomatic patients, and seeing even more on Friday — closer to 70 than 40.

Appointments are offered Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, usually from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. The site will be closed Tuesdays and Sundays, although the schedule is subject to change.

“I think the whole goal of free testing is to help decompress the emergency department for those coming in for testing, and our urgent cares, and just giving people another option to get tested,” Mrs. DiStefano said. “Because it’s sometimes difficult and we’re hoping that this process is going smoothly. I did hear some positive results of people being able to book their appointments online — I think being able to go online and do it yourself definitely adds a level of convenience.”

Free PCR COVID-19 testing will be prioritized on a first-come, first-served basis. Any community member with an interest in being tested can be scheduled as long as supplies are available. Appointments must be made online at:

Once patients arrive at the testing site, signs instruct them where to go, to keep car windows closed as they enter the garage bay, and to hold identification up to the window so intake staff can validate name and date of birth during appointment check-in. This is a fully drive-up process, meaning patients will never leave their vehicle and the site is not for walk-in traffic.

Test results are available within three to seven days, as this is not rapid testing. Community members who provide a cell phone number and email address will be notified of their negative results via text and email. All positive results will be provided by public health.

Capacity to test at the site is about 150 people a day, but 50 spots are reserved for surgical patients and those who are symptomatic calling Samaritan’s resource line.

Samaritan still wants people who are symptomatic to call the resource line, 315-555-3100, to schedule an appointment. For all others, whether asymptomatic or just not sure, they’re encouraged to go online and make an appointment.

“If you do have any COVID-type symptoms, it’s really beneficial to call our resource line,” Mrs. DiStefano said. “We still have our nurses, they’re on standby.”

She said nurses are taking roughly 50 calls a day, “up from where it was just a few months ago.”

Mrs. DiStefano added that those who are symptomatic require quick testing and care, and may need a variety of responses, including primary care or monoclonal antibody therapy.

“We want the free testing to be for anyone that has a concern, but for those that have symptoms, we’d like to be able to lead them down a path to get them tested, and then to get them cared for quickly,” she said.

Another goal of this endeavor is to help divert traffic from emergency departments, and prevent calls to physicians’ offices to get a test. So far, things seem to be trending positively when it comes to easing tension at the Samaritan Emergency Department from COVID-19 cases, but Mrs. DiStefano noted that the department is still busy with various emergency situations.

Should demand increase and Samaritan start to see consistently increasing numbers of people booking appointments for the free testing, Mrs. DiStefano said she thinks the state would be supportive. Initially, Samaritan has set the bar high at 100 appointments a day in addition to surgical and symptomatic patients.

“I do believe that if we needed to add to that the state would be supportive,” Mrs. DiStefano said. “And we would do our very best to find the additional resources — which is staffing — to make that happen.”

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