Guidelines for patients with respiratory illness posted on the back door of Salem Health's clinic on River Road South on March 16, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

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Salem Health is now testing patients for COVID-19 , one of the first systems in the state to directly provide the service. The tests will be conducted at a clinic, not at the hospital.

Hospital officials would not say how many tests per day they’ll be able to perform, saying that depends on the availability of test kits and protective equipment for health care providers.

“If everybody who wants to be tested shows up, the demand will quickly outpace our supply,” said Leilani Slama, Salem Health’s vice president of community engagement. “We’re really, really making sure that the people who need to be tested get tested first.”

Slama said they want the public to know two things. Don’t show up at a hospital emergency room or the clinic to request a test, and call your regular doctor or primary care provider if you think you have symptoms of COVID-19. All testing will be done only at a doctor’s direction.

Unless someone is having a medical emergency, “we don’t want people showing up at the emergency room to be tested because we can’t do that at this time,” Slama said.

Those admitted to the hospital with serious respiratory illness can still be tested for the disease under state guidelines, she said. But coming to the emergency room with a cough won’t trigger a test, and will expose more people to any infection a patient has.

Salem Health administrators are leaving it up to doctors to determine who should be tested, though they’ve distributed broad guidelines. Primary care providers both in and outside the Salem Health system can request testing for a patient, Slama said, by calling.

In general, those guidelines require a negative test for influenza and symptoms of COVID-19, which include a dry cough, fever and shortness of breath.

Healthcare providers have flexibility in determining who to refer for testing, Slama said. In general, they’ll look for contact with another COVID-19 case, but can also base a decision on factors like whether a person lives with someone vulnerable to the disease, or whether the patient works in healthcare or another job where they’re more likely to have come into contact with someone carrying the virus.

Patients approved for testing will be referred to the Salem Health clinic on South River Road, entering through a rear entry to avoid exposing other patients. The clinic has set up a check-in station in a back hallway outside the clinic door.

Positive results will be reported to the state and included in government counts of total COVID-19 cases, said Michael Gay, Salem Health’s director of government relations. Results take three to four days, he said.

How widespread private testing will be depends on the hospital’s ability to keep kits and protective equipment in stock. In an email to state legislators over the weekend, Gay said Salem Health was “critically low” on some needed supplies, including face masks and face shields, and waiting on a resupply from the state.

That’s not unique to Salem Health, he said Monday. Hospitals and health providers across the U.S. are challenged to keep needed equipment in stock.

“It changes day to day,” he said.

The expansion of private testing in Oregon will give health officials a better sense of the disease’s spread. Until recently, all Oregon tests went through the Oregon Health Authority lab, and state guidelines required someone to be hospitalized before receiving a test.

That high bar meant Oregon has tested far fewer people than other states and was, by health officials’ admission, missing many people infected with the novel coronavirus.

Salem Health also announced Sunday that it would bar visitors from Salem Hospital, West Valley Hospital and Salem Health clinics until further notice. There are exceptions, including for patients in end-of-life care, obstetrics patients and children.

The Legacy Health System, which operates Legacy Silverton Medical Center, announced all hospital patients would be limited to one healthy visitor over age 16 during their stay starting Tuesday.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander at [email protected] or 503-575-1241.