Meritus staff has been providing COVID-19 tests from the beginning

On March 11, 2020, David Topper suited up in personal protective equipment to start conducting Washington County’s first COVID-19 tests while his co-workers at Meritus Medical Plaza watched from inside.

Roughly 19 months later, the Meritus Health clinical coordinator stood outside the well-oiled machine that is the drive-through testing site on Crayton Boulevard in Hagerstown, reflecting on the healthcare system’s recent 200,000-test milestone.

“I mean, that's amazing, because really, looking back at it now, it doesn't seem like that many people, just because you just take it day by day,” Topper said Thursday.

Nearly 80% of those 200,000 came through the drive-through site Topper has helped manage since day one. The process has evolved tremendously as more was learned about the novel coronavirus that has turned much of everyday life upside down for nearly two years.

Topper said the site started with nurses just standing in the parking lots being shielded by a wedding tent, then trailers in the winter to help protect them from the elements.

Now, the site is a “seamless process” where individuals can fill out all necessary paperwork from the car.

He likened the site’s evolution to doing maintenance on a car while also driving it down the highway because “you still have to move forward.”

Topper said the Meritus employees immediately had a mindset to help out the community, even if it was unclear exactly what that meant.

“It was just all hands on deck,” he said. “Everyone jumped in and gave 100%.”

Aside from manning the drive-through for hours, Topper said staff members would help people change tires or push cars out of the line if someone needed help.

“We have an incredible staff and everyone that's been involved in this whole process,” he said.  “Without this, we wouldn't be where we are. That's the reality. It would be worse.”

While 200,000 tests is an impressive number, the goal for Meritus is to get the community down to zero cases, Topper said, adding that easy and accessible tests and quick results is how that will be achieved.

As of Friday evening, Meritus reported 41 people hospitalized for COVID-19, 36 of which were unvaccinated. Nine people were in the intensive care unit for COVID-19, with only one patient being vaccinated.

All three COVID-19 patients on a ventilator were unvaccinated.

According to the county’s Joint Information Center, 391 people have died of COVID-19 in the county and the positivity rate as of Friday was 9.52%.

‘As easy as possible’

Meritus President and CEO Maulik Joshi said the hospital’s mission is focused on improving the health of the county.

“So that and testing is really huge because, as you know, it's a cornerstone of public health,” he said. “If you don't test, you can't contain the spread.”

Joshi said Meritus’ goal is to make COVID-19 testing “as easy as possible for anybody.”

To accomplish that, there is no doctor’s note required, the patient does not have to be showing symptoms and only insurance, not individuals, get charged. Results are also available as early as 18 hours after testing.

Joshi said 25% of tests were on people from outside of Washington County and individuals from 30 different states have come through.

The credit, he said, goes first and foremost to the Meritus staff members who jumped in to do the testing and the medical lab employees who get results to people as quickly as possible.

“The staff are unbelievably agile and flexible,” Joshi said. “If you think about it, we literally have hundreds of positions that you never had two years ago. We have drive-through testing. We have the monoclonal infusion therapy. We have vaccinations and then we have COVID itself in the hospital, where you're helping people to put on (personal protective equipment) and take off all sorts of stuff. … We had team members who just figured it out, made it work.”

Joshi said the Meritus employees are “health care heroes.”

On the frontlines

Darla Haberlein was hired in September 2020 to help specifically with the driving-through testing site.

While the licensed practical nurse said there have been a number of challenges and changes along the way, it’s been rewarding to have contributed to the 200,000-test milestone.

“It feels good,” Haberlein said. “It's a lot. That is a lot of people, and during our busier times, I definitely felt it but it was good because this is a really good process.”

When she started, Haberlein said Meritus had not yet gotten its trailers, so she had to work under tents in several layers of clothing when when weather was bad or it got cold.

“You can only dress in so many layers with your hands though,” she said.

But she and her co-workers pressed forward, testing lines of people regardless of the rain, snow or sunshine, sometimes even pushing someone’s car for them when it died or ran out of gas in line.

The staff members looked for ways to improve the patients’ experience as well, sometimes taking time to connect to the person behind the wheel.

“We really want to be quick and efficient, but sometimes you just have to take that extra 45 seconds to talk to the person because they're not just getting tested for a test,” Haberlein said. “People needed tests for traveling. They've had deaths in the family and they need to travel to different places. Also babies are being born, things like that.”

And those getting the tests have shown their appreciation for Haberlein and her co-workers.

She said one woman began their encounter by thanking her for everything she does, and even handed her the small emotional support dog she had in the car with her, causing Haberlein to tear up.

COVID-19 screening is available behind Meritus Medical Plaza at 13620 Crayton Blvd., Hagerstown, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. No appointment or referral is needed.

This article first published in The Herald-Mail and on in November 2021.