Lexington clinic busy testing for COVID-19 cases is running low on protective gear

Lexington clinic busy testing for COVID-19 cases is running low on protective gear

At a small Lexington urgent care clinic, a doctor said he is waging war against the COVID-19 pandemic, but he doesn’t know how much longer he can fight without adequate protective gear.

Veritas Health Group is small, with 13 employees and just one physician, yet it has diagnosed about 15% of Lexington County’s 130 COVID-19 cases, according to owner Dr. Lachin Hatemi.

The Columbia Avenue clinic is in 29072, one of the ZIP codes with the highest concentration of cases in the Midlands. Hatemi says he thinks the number of people with the virus is “actually much higher” than the number of confirmed cases — 24 in the ZIP code as of April 6, according to DHEC.

While some individual physicians’ practices have closed and other health care facilities aren’t providing COVID-19 testing, Hatemi has ramped up his work. He has run more than 300 tests in all, he said.

Veritas and Lexington Medical Center are doing the bulk of coronavirus testing in Lexington County, Hatemi said — but his “ideology” differs from the hospital’s. He believes there’s a need for more widespread testing than what Lexington Medical Center does, so he checks even asymptomatic patients.

Lexington Medical Center spokesperson Jennifer Wilson said the hospital follows testing guidelines from DHEC and the Centers for Disease Control.

“The guidelines indicate that not everyone needs a test,” she wrote in an email to The State. The hospital would not release information on how many patients it has tested.

Veritas is open seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., though employees have been working overtime lately because of the extra work. As early as January, Hatemi started ordering supplies he knew would run short and warning people to prepare for the coronavirus’ arrival in the United States.

Because he runs one of the few independent practices in Lexington County, he has been ordering COVID-19 test kits on his own, from three suppliers, to be sure he doesn’t run out.

But his foresight wasn’t enough to keep some other resources on hand.

The clinic has run out of sterilized gowns and is starting to deplete its supply of cleaning supplies and gloves, because his staff uses two to three boxes of gloves per day. While he has some 3D printed face shields courtesy of the University of South Carolina and about a hundred N95 masks, Hatemi said supplies run out quickly. Veritas has an average of 45 to 50 patients per day, and “it’s getting more difficult by the day” to restock.

Veritas put up tents outside of the clinic to care for potential coronavirus patients, so people with non-virus needs can be inside. Staff members also began setting appointments for COVID-19 testing to allow for social distancing. It’s been busy, Hatemi said.

Various companies that are still open under Gov. Henry McMaster’s executive orders have been sending their employees to Veritas for testing. At the clinic, they can get a full check-up, chest X-Ray, flu test and the COVID-19 test, which takes about four days for results to come back.

On April 7, Aditya Bhonsle visited Veritas for a COVID-19 test after work. He had been feeling sick with some chest issues for about two weeks.

“I have a diabetic mother,” he said. “I have to be selfish and get the test.”

While South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster issued a stay-at-home order on April 7, it still allows for certain “essential” businesses to remain open. Some, like Hatemi, say state officials must do more to keep people from spreading the virus and overwhelming the health care system.

“We should be locked down. Nothing less than a lockdown,” Hatemi said.

Lab technician Jessica Lindler said the clinic recently treated a large family in which at least four members tested positive for the coronavirus. They were sent home to quarantine.

“We just protected Lexington,” she said.

In total, the clinic has run more than 300 COVID-19 tests, with more than 20 coming back positive. Veritas was awaiting results on 80 tests as of April 8.

Health care workers and nursing home employees are coming in for testing because they’re also caring for infected people without the adequate protective equipment, Hatemi said. But another trend has emerged, too: “we’re seeing much younger people.”

Hatemi and his staff say they need personal protective equipment, or PPE, to guard against infection and to keep the clinic running. Hatemi has a cough that sneaks up on him every few minutes but he hasn’t checked himself for COVID-19.

“Getting tested is a moot point because we get exposed every single day,” he said. Instead, “we check our temperature every single day” in the morning and evening. His body temperature been in the normal range, he said.

If Hatemi gets seriously ill, he will have to close Veritas. He is increasingly concerned about what he sees from his clinic on a typically busy Lexington street: normalcy.

“There is more traffic in downtown Lexington than downtown Atlanta,” he said on Monday, before Gov. McMaster’s order. “These people are not essential workers. They shouldn’t be out and about.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this story included an outdated description of Doctors Care clinics’ testing capabilities. Doctors Care physicians can refer symptomatic patients to a by-appointment-only COVID-19 testing site at in the Midlands. (Updated 9:42 a.m. 04/10/20)

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