URI Mobile Health Unit provides remote testing site in Central Falls

COVID-19 tests available to Pawtucket and Central Falls residents by appointment

CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — May 20, 2020 — The University of Rhode Island Rhode to Health mobile health unit is helping in the fight against COVID-19, serving as a testing site in one of the most vulnerable, hardest hit communities in the state.

A partnership of URI, the Rhode Island Department of Health and CVS Pharmacy, the Emergency Disaster Response Testing Services Agreement allows the deployment of the mobile unit to Central Falls to provide COVID-19 testing to residents of that community and neighboring Pawtucket. Part of the communities’ Beat COVID-19 efforts, the unit is stocked with the same Abbott rapid testing machines used at the larger testing site at Twin River Casino, which produce results in as little as 15 minutes. The URI vehicle takes five of the machines directly into one of the most densely populated regions of Rhode Island, bringing tests to residents who may not be able to access the larger site.

CVS Pharmacist Paul Lenz conducts a COVID-19 test
CVS Pharmacist Paul Lenz conducts a COVID-19 test inside the URI Rhode to Health mobile health unit in Central Falls, R.I.

“We are trying to reach residents who may not have access to transportation to get to the larger testing facility,” said Bryan Blissmer, director of URI’s Institute for Integrated Health and Innovation, who reached out to RIDOH to offer the mobile unit’s services. “This is really designed to meet the needs of a particular population that may otherwise not be reached. This kind of on-location health service to the community is exactly what the Rhode to Health unit was designed for. I was really excited to be able to use it in a meaningful way to help fight the pandemic.”

The testing site provides service by appointment only. Residents of the two communities — who make an appointment by phone at 855-843-7620 — can drive or walk into the parking lot of a former bank building on Dexter Street in Central Falls. The Rhode Island National Guard has erected drive-through tents at the site where employees from Alert EMS provide cotton swabs for residents to self swab. The swab is brought into the Rhode to Health vehicle, where CVS employees test samples, log the results and provide all relevant health information to patients. The entire process takes less than 20 minutes.

Physicians Assistant MaryEllen Pease-Madsen, left, a URI graduate, discusses a positive COVID-19 test with nurse practitioner Nevada Gray, while Julia Tiberi, a URI College of Pharmacy graduate, contacts a Central Falls resident waiting in his car for the result.
Physicians Assistant MaryEllen Pease-Madsen, left, a URI graduate, discusses a positive COVID-19 test with nurse practitioner Nevada Gray, while Julia Tiberi, a URI College of Pharmacy graduate, contacts a Central Falls resident waiting in his car for the result.

Because false negative results are possible with COVID-19 tests, residents are informed that a negative test does not necessarily mean they are free of the disease. “They are encouraged to isolate, especially while symptomatic,” Blissmer said. “We feel confident in the positive results and try to weigh the benefit of being able to quickly identify positives and start quarantining and contact tracing while managing the risk of a negative result encouraging overconfidence in individuals. We stay in touch with the DOH, CDC, and Abbott to ensure we follow current guidelines for test administration.”

Several of the pharmacists, nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants staffing the Rhode to Health are URI graduates, including Mary Ellen Pease-Madsen, who said the test results are uploaded to the state’s database, providing near real-time updates to the state numbers, and fast results for residents worried about being exposed to the virus. The unit has been testing about 50 people a day at the site, a number Pease-Madsen is hoping to double.

“We estimate we need to be testing about 100 people a day, which we have the capacity to do,” Pease-Madsen said. “There is a bit of a hot spot here, so we want to identify as many people infected with the virus as we can. Every positive test we get demonstrates the importance of having a testing site in this community.”

The remote testing site helps provide critical information as well as peace of mind to residents in the community, according to Robert Munoz, an Alert EMS employee who graduated from URI’s College of Health Sciences May 17 with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and biology. In addition to ensuring proper safety procedures are followed and samples are collected properly, Munoz has also been serving as a Spanish translator, helping ensure the critical information is correctly communicated.

“Everything has to be done properly and safely, and we have to make sure people receive the information they need,” Munoz said. “I’m really happy to be here doing this work every day; it’s great to be working with URI on this. Everyone is very thankful that we’re here for them. It’s been really rewarding.”

Residents of Central Falls and Pawtucket who want to be tested can call the Beat COVID-19 Hotline at 855-843-7620. The CVS Health testing site full testing site at Twin River Casino in Lincoln offers free drive-up rapid testing for eligible Rhode Island residents by appointment. Visit RIDOH’s Testing webpage to learn more about COVID-19 testing operations in Rhode Island.