Employees of the University of Washington’s UW Medicine system, can now get tested for coronavirus without leaving their cars.
The system’s medical center in northwest Seattle has turned a hospital garage lot into a drive-through clinic that can test a person every five minutes. They typically get results within a day or so.
But the idea involves more than convenience. It’s also about safety.
“Because of the way this virus could be spread, we want to make sure there’s good ventilation,” says Dr. Seth Cohen, who runs the infectious disease clinic at UW Medical Center Northwest.
Coronavirus has already caused at least 17 deaths in the Seattle area and infected at least 83 people.
So staff have placed three medical tents on the first floor of the center’s multilevel garage, which is not enclosed. Signs and orange cones funnel vehicles to the testing site.
On the clinic’s first morning of operation, a cold breeze was blowing through the structure. Cohen described it as “excellent airflow that you can feel.”
When workers first drive in, they’re greeted by Jan Nakahara, a nurse who usually works at the University’s Hall Health Center.
“I’m going to have you pull up,” she tells the driver. “Don’t get out of your car.”
For now, the drive-through clinic is limited to health care workers in the university’s health care system. And they need to have a fever, dry cough, or other symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus.
“If they had symptoms, they would go and fill out a survey online,” Nakahara says. “And then if the screeners thought it sounded like it was a possibility of coronavirus, then they were given an appointment today.”
The next stop at the testing clinic is in front of the three white medical tents.
Jeff Gates, a nurse at the medical center, approaches each car. Like Nakahara, he’s in full personal protective gear, including a clear plastic face mask.
“Hello, my name is Jeff,” he tells the driver. “We’re going to be doing your swabs today.”
Gates prepares to take two swabs through the open window, one each nostril.
“I’m going to have you lean your head back just a little bit, try not to move on me,” Gates says as inserts the first swab. “Sorry, I know that’s uncomfortable.”
Gates takes the samples he’s collected and seals them in plastic tubes. They’ll be processed by a lab a few miles away.
“We’re going to be testing for both influenza A and B, RSV, as well as COVID-19,” Gates tells the driver. “We’ll get results back as soon as possible.”
“Thank you,” he adds. “I hope you feel better soon.”
Then it’s time for Gates to put on fresh protective gear and get ready for the next arrival.
“It’s been going great,” he says. “Very smooth. We’ve had probably seven people come through this morning.”
The traffic here is expected to increase dramatically in the next few days.
For now, the clinic will continue to focus on health care workers because they will be essential if the coronavirus continues to spread in the Seattle area.
“We want to make sure that if our staff test negative we get them back to work as soon as we can,” Cohen says. “But if they test positive we want to keep them out of the workforce to make sure they’re not going on to infect other staff or patients.”
The medical center plans to extend in-car testing to first-responders who may have been exposed.
The university also expects to work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to provide coronavirus testing kits that patients can use at home.
Home testing would be “fantastic,” Cohen says.
But home kits rely on swabs that don’t go nearly as far into the nasal passages as the ones testing clinics use. So scientists still need to verify that the home kits won’t miss any infections, Cohen says.
As results from wider testing come in, Cohen says, the information should help public health officials assess the current outbreak.
“It will definitely give us a clue as to whether COVID has other epicenters within Seattle, including other institutions,” he says.
So far, the drive through tests have found lots of flu, and a few cases of coronavirus, Cohen says.