Weems Memorial Hospital, which has stepped up countywide testing for the coronavirus in recent weeks, now plans to invest in its own test equipment, to ensure a faster turnaround.


David Walker, interim CEO at Weems, told county commissioners Tuesday morning the hospital planned to spend $59,000 on testing equipment that would get results back in a hour, rather than in 48 to 72 hours, and would eliminate the current $100 per test fee charged by private labs to read the results.


Because the cost exceeded the $50,000 threshold, Weems was required to secure approval from the county commissioners, who did so unanimously.


Walker said the purchase price will not come from the health care trust fund, but rather will be covered by grant monies from the state office of rural health earmarked for COVID-19-related expenses.


“We just figured we got money, why not get this particular machine?” said Walker.


Donna Taratoot, Weems laboratory manager, said she favored the Cepheid GeneXpert IV R2 Module Configuration D because it relies on a highly sensitive PCR (polymerase chain reaction) method with a high degree of reliability.


“It’s a safe methodology,” she said. “The old method had manual manipulation, with a potential for infection. Here everything is contained in a box, and there’s virtually no chance of contamination of lab personnel.”


The test equipment also can screen for 20 other infections, four of which the hospital now does by sending the samples off to a private lab.


Taratoot said because of the fast turnaround time, there will be no need to isolate possible COVID-19 patients in rooms with negative pressure, and require health care workers to use more elaborate personal protection equipment, as they await results from test samples.


“Having this piece of equipment allow us to know almost instantaneously,” said Walker, adding that there’s no delays for nursing home patients, who cannot return to their facilities until they are fully determined to be free of the coronavirus.


“We test quickly and can go ahead and isolate them if we need to,” he said.


Walker said the hospital plans to pay particular attention in the months to come on children, as the start of the school year nears.


“We want to watch the number of kids tested positive for COVID 19,” he said. “We’re trying to create access to care and knock down barriers. We’re trying to make sure we have everything in our county.”


The grant funding for the equipment does not require a match from the county. In approving the expenditure, the commissioners waived their bid policy based on the fact the county remains under a state of emergency.