By Sam Wilson
Matt Thrasher woke up one morning in early June feeling ill. He suspected food poisoning and called his boss at a bathroom surface refinishing company, where he works as a technician. The company relayed the message to Thrasher’s customer for the day, for whom he was tasked with detailing a tub and shower he had begun the day prior. Out of an abundance of caution, the clients asked that he get tested for COVID-19 before doing the work. His boss agreed, which is how he wound up parallel parked in his company truck on the 2000 block of North Williams Avenue, swirling a non-cotton swab around each of his nostrils.
Thrasher had been referred to Dr. Kat Lopez Sankey, 37, who runs a private member practice office in the basement of Oasis of Change, a community center on North Williams Avenue. Lopez began offering drive-up COVID-19 tests in early April, soon after the FDA began allowing the less invasive nasal swabs for sample collection, and still when the flatness of our curves was yet to be known. She anticipated a large demand for people looking for answers and planned on hiring employees to assist with the rush. She ordered a sign to be printed offering the service for $150, a price she settled on after weighing the many unknown factors. But the rush never came.
Sankey began her private practice a year ago, distraught by the “insurance-industrial complex” after five years in an integrative medicine clinic. Her clients now pay $100 a month for “unlimited access” via office visits, emails, phone calls, or texts. The membership fee is out of pocket, although some insurance companies refund the cost. Her clients visit from around the Portland area, ranging from families to the elderly, but all have come by way of word of mouth. “My type of medicine doesn’t actually work very well in an insurance model,” she notes. “It’s not lucrative to spend a long thoughtful time with people with multiple follow-up calls and being accessible to them all the time. None of that is reimbursed by insurance.”
When the coronavirus began keeping people indoors, Lopez saw less of her patients but also heard from them less as well. “I initially thought that because of the pandemic, there would be more sick people and I would be useful,” she said. “But instead, society just kind of shut down.”
It was surprising, too, that more people were not trying to get tested. Since she started offering them, Lopez has administered 13 drive-in tests to the public, all of which have been negative, and believes mixed messages have discouraged more people from getting tests. “I think there was a misunderstanding of how many swabs and tubes existed, and there was a mindset of conservation for those who were important and it was hard to know how inundated we would be,” she said. “An asymptomatic person with no exposures who’s not a healthcare worker still can’t get tested. Anywhere. Except for me or if their doctor wants to do it.” Lopez also acknowledged a Walgreens in Hillsboro began testing asymptomatic people with no exposures in late May.
As labs have become more streamlined with COVID-19 testing, Lopez has smoothed her process as well. She has settled on using LabCorp to process the tests she administers. They charge $52 per test, usually picking up the swabs within a half-hour of the sample being collected, and their results come in a few days at most. As such, Lopez has been steadily lowering her price, although the sign she had ordered at the beginning of April had only recently arrived.
As she sat in the sunny garden adjacent to Oasis of Change in early June, Lopez reflected that she should be doing the test for free, with insurance. Without insurance, the LabCorp fee would still need to be covered by the person getting tested. She had, after all, an abundance of swabs and sterile tubes, just waiting for samples. “It’s very rewarding. People are really emotional about it,” Lopez said of the peace of mind she sees when someone does a test.
For Matt Thrasher, it was a simple process he was more than glad to do. “Look, we’re going through a pandemic. I feel like more people should get this done,” he said. Three days after Thrasher handed his swab to Lopez from his truck window, he got an email with his results. Negative.
To schedule a test with Dr. Kat Lopez Sankey, visit covidtestpdx.com.