Why a Charlotte doctors’ group opened a virus-testing site

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Dale Owen

Dale Owen Jr. is a cardiologist and CEO of Tryon Medical Partners, the Charlotte-area’s biggest independent physicians group. Tryon opened its first Covid-19 testing site today in south Charlotte and plans to test patients from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. He discussed his views of the public health crisis in an interview edited for clarity.

What is your main message?

If we don’t blunt the curve, the acute nature of all these positive tests will completely overrun our health care system. Our hospitals won’t be able to handle the surge of patients. Routine procedures won’t be handled with the same aplomb or capabilities. Hospitals still need to deal with the heart attacks, and acute appendicitis and other issues.

To make an impact, this whole thing on social distancing is going to have to be real. 

Are you planning other clinics?

We will open a second clinic by the end of next week. We’re looking at four sites. We need vendors and landlords to say we are here to help. We can’t shoulder the risk and financial burden ourselves. To erect a site in a freestanding parking lot will cost $60,000. We need vendors and others to help put it together. Hospitals can afford that, but we can’t as an independent business.

Why did Tryon decide to do its own tests?

We can’t just rely on the hospitals, because they are overwhelmed and could become swamped quickly. Independent physicians need to do their part and answer the call and do [their] own satellite testing.

We talked to physician leaders at Novant and Atrium, and they were surprised but grateful for the help. This isn’t about drawing lines and competition. This is about the public making it through this.

I commend the hospitals [for mobilizing] as fast as they could. 

You tested a patient with the virus, right?

 Yes, we had our first positive, and we immediately alerted the physician and then the patient and health department. We knew we would have a case, because we’ve got 15% of the market in Mecklenburg County with 130,000 patients. You know we’re going to get positive tests. Every business and company, every walk of life is going to have a positive test.

How concerned are you about what happens in the next month?

We are on the same track as the four nations with the highest volume of cases: China, South Korea, Italy and Iran. We are just two weeks behind them. Over the last seven days, our nation has had a 35% increase in confirmed tests on a daily basis, so we’re on the exponential curve and heading to a higher rate.

This isn’t to scare, because knowledge is power. We need to tell the public the [truth] and give them the facts and guidance on how to act. No more sugar coating. This is the real thing.

Is your staff ready?

Our staff is locked and loaded and ready to go. We have to be. This is a war of a different kind. It’s not carrying guns, it’s carrying stethoscopes.  

Any final thoughts?

The vaccine won’t come in time to take care of this wave or probably even a second wave. But it would help prevent further infections. It’s unclear if people who catch the virus can catch it again. We hope it will decrease significantly as the temperature rises but if not, we are in for a longer ride.

I think the death rate will be well under 1%. My caution is to not relax and think we can go back to normal once the first wave is over. Otherwise, we will just create a second acute wave.


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