Tents, uniformed personnel and a military truck were visible last Sunday outside Cheshire Medical Center, as the N.H. National Guard visited Keene to run a one-day mobile testing site. The pop-up facility was equipped to test at least 125 people for COVID-19 over the course of eight hours.
But only 66 people were actually tested, according to the N.H. Joint Information Center, which is handling media inquiries related to the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s not clear why the site did not end up testing as many people as it could have. But people were given at least two different messages about how to make appointments and who qualified for testing.
The temporary test site was part of an effort the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services had launched the previous week to expand COVID-19 testing to anyone experiencing one or more symptoms. In addition to mobile testing units, the state set up several fixed locations for testing, the closest of which is in Claremont.
At the time, state officials were urging residents to arrange testing through their primary health care providers. (They have since changed that guidance.)
“IMPORTANT: All appointments must be scheduled through a patient’s Primary Care Provider or by calling 211 if a patient does not have a provider,” Cheshire Medical Center said in a May 1 news release announcing the mobile testing site was coming two days later.
People who stopped by the site Sunday were told something different. Two of them told The Sentinel they were able to arrange appointments that same day without speaking to their doctors or even having symptoms.
Suzette Borden of Keene said she passed by the Keene hospital during a walk Sunday afternoon. Not seeing any cars in line, she spoke to one of the National Guard members staffing the site. He gave her a piece of paper with instructions about how to make an appointment through a state scheduling center, according to Borden.
“I said, ‘Who can be tested?’ and he said, ‘Anyone can get tested,’ ” Borden said. “I said, ‘You mean you don’t need to have your PCP recommend it?’ He said, ‘No it’s open to anyone who wants a test.’ ”
The instructions said callers “may” be asked to contact their primary care physicians for referrals, but Borden wasn’t. She said that when she called, she was asked if she had any COVID-19 symptoms. She said no, though her age — 71 — put her in a higher-risk category.
“He said, ‘Well, have you had a cough like in the last month or so?’ ” Borden said. “I said, ‘Well, I coughed maybe once or twice.’ He said, ‘OK.’ ”
Fifteen minutes later, she was back at the Cheshire Medical parking lot with an appointment. She said the person taking her nasal swab encouraged her to tell friends. Borden called four or five people, all of whom quickly arranged appointments, she said.
Brenda Von Plinsky, another Keene resident, said her family also made a spur-of-the-moment decision to get tested. On the way to run an errand Sunday, they stopped to inquire about the process.
Someone staffing the testing site handed them a piece of paper with the scheduling center number. She — along with her husband, N.H. Rep. Sparky Von Plinsky, and their two teenagers — soon had appointments for later that day, she said.
She said the person on the state call line did not ask whether they had symptoms. When she asked if anyone would be denied an appointment, she said, that person said no — they wanted to collect as much testing data as possible.
It is not clear why different entities gave different messages on different days about how to sign up for testing.
“We did follow the guidance of state officials who launched the program last Wednesday,” Matthew Barone, a Cheshire Medical Center spokesman, said in an email Monday. He added that the National Guard was sharing a number to be “given to the public should they wander to a testing site in person.”
A spokesman for the N.H. National Guard said it was supporting the state health department and referred questions to the Joint Information Center. The center did not respond to a question about the two divergent messages. The Sentinel’s request to interview someone at the state health department had not been granted as of Friday.
Everyone The Sentinel interviewed described the site — where people would drive up, verify their identity and submit to a nasal swab — as well organized and efficient.
State officials have been expanding COVID-19 testing over the past few weeks, as capacity has grown.
They announced two weeks ago that doctors could recommend tests for anyone with symptoms — a change from past guidance that prioritized the seriously ill, health care workers and first responders.
Earlier this week, the state further expanded its guidance to include anyone over 60 or with an underlying medical condition that creates a higher risk for serious complications of COVID-19, even if they’re free of symptoms.
State officials also announced for the first time Wednesday that any of those people can register for testing without contacting their doctor, through an online portal at www.nh.gov/covid19. Thousands had already scheduled appointments as of Friday, state officials said.
The state averaged about 1,200 test results per day over the past week, up from several hundred a month ago. “We expect to be well over 2,000 a day by the end of next week,” Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette said in a news conference Friday.
Borden — who chairs Cheshire Medical Center’s Patient and Family Advisory Council — said she does not want to blame anyone for the different messages about the mobile test site. She just wants to make sure those resources are fully utilized the next time they’re available. Cheshire Medical said in its May 1 news release that it expects the mobile testing unit to return in about 10 days.
“This was a great opportunity to test as many people as we could in this area, whether they had symptoms or not, to see how much COVID-19 we had,” she said.