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Samaritan announces new masking, COVID testing guidelines

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Samaritan Masks

Here is an example of the kind of surgical mask that's acceptable for patients at Samaritan Health clinics and hospitals. 

Samaritan Health Services is making changes to its masking guidelines for all patients and visitors to its facilities, plus changes to who can get tested for COVID-19 at Samaritan sites.

The changes come as the omicron variant of coronavirus leads to record-breaking caseloads that are burdening hospital systems across Oregon.

With increased concern about the aerosol spread of COVID-19, new guidance suggests N-95s should be worn in high-risk situations, but experts say cloth masks still have their place and new manufacturing standards are improving the quality.

One of the biggest changes is in what kinds of masks or face protectors are required. Now, all patients and visitors must wear medical-grade masks, also known as procedure masks or surgical masks, according to a Samaritan news release.

N95 or KN95 masks are also acceptable, but bandanas, gaiters, face shields and regular cloth masks are no longer adequate. Acceptable masks will be provided onsite for those who do not have them, according to the release.

Changes to testing requirements and availability are also part of the Samaritan news.

COVID-19 testing now will be limited only to patients with symptoms or a known exposure to coronavirus. Testing will be available only by appointment starting Tuesday, Jan. 11 until further notice at the testing sites in Albany, Corvallis and Lebanon.

These changes come just a week after Mid-Valley Media published a story about COVID-19 testing availability in Linn and Benton counties. At the time of publication, Samaritan officials estimated it had enough test kits on hand to continue at the current volume for a couple of months.

That supply hasn’t been depleted, it’s just that the demand for testing has ramped up so much in recent weeks that the testing sites are overwhelmed, said Jane Russell, chief operating office of Samaritan Pacific Communities Hospital in Newport and the person who oversees the organization’s COVID-19 testing supplies.

“Yeah, we have plenty of supply, but the issue we’re running into is the sheer volume of testing done at the testing centers. … It has nothing to do with the testing supplies themselves,” she said in a follow-up interview.

More than 200 people are being tested per day at mid-valley testing sites, she estimated though that number could not be confirmed by deadline.  

“And, frankly, we have people coming through, saying they are going to some event this weekend," she added. That's not the kind of testing "that we would deem medically necessary.”

Those with symptoms and who believe they need to get tested for COVID-19 can do so by visiting www.samhealth.org/COVIDtesting for more information. Those without internet access may call 844-469-2427.

People who would like to get tested prior to events, travel or just to make sure they aren’t infected can track down tests at their local pharmacy or at public health testing sites. A full directory of where testing can be found across Oregon is available through the Oregon Health Authority at www.healthoregon.org/covid19testing.

Samaritan reiterated that the changes come in response to the heightened caseloads.

“These were difficult decisions to make, but with cases of the omicron variant surging regionally, these changes were necessary to be sure we are able to provide coronavirus testing to the patients who need it most, and in a timely manner for the best possible patient care,” Dr. Robert Turngren, chief medical officer for Samaritan Health Services, said in the news release.

Troy Shinn covers healthcare, natural resources and Linn County government. He can be reached at 541-812-6114 or troy.shinn@lee.net. He can be found on Twitter at @troydshinn. 

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