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Drive-Through Coronavirus Tests Begin To Pop Up Around The United States

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Lack of testing has been a big barrier to getting a handle on the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. As more tests are now becoming available, people in a growing number of places are being screened. They are sometimes being tested without ever getting out of the car. Here is testing czar Brett Giroir speaking today during a press conference at the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

BRETT GIROIR: These are blossoming all over the country by individual states. The ones that we are heavily involved in and really pushing equipment to we expect over the next few days to begin setting up 47 of these in approximately 12 states.

KELLY: Well, NPR's Sarah McCammon visited one of them, a drive-through coronavirus test site in Virginia Beach. She joins me now.

Hi, Sarah.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So my drive-through experience is pretty much limited to McDonald's and Starbucks. I'm guessing this is different. How does it work?

MCCAMMON: Yeah. It's different in a lot of ways but also recognizable in that you just drive up in your car, you talk to someone and you get what you need - in this case, to a medical personnel. In some cases, you get tested right there on site, usually an oral swab or a nasal swab. And these are going up outside medical centers, but also, we've heard of places like mall parking lots or churches.

The one I visited here in Virginia Beach was outside a hospital, Sentara Princess Anne. And I want to say I used a long mic. I stood off to the side. And I called out some questions to these two nurses - Pam Patrick-Thompson and Jenny Fry. They were there under a big white tent, wearing masks and gowns as they tested patient after patient in their car yesterday.

How's it going so far?

PAM PATRICK THOMPSON: Actually, it's going better than I expected.

JENNY FRY: For the first day, yeah.

PATRICK THOMPSON: People are being really positive about everything. They just want to be tested so - and they want to know when they're going to know.

MCCAMMON: So in some locations, like Stanford University in California, patients are being asked to have a doctor's referral first before getting these drive-through tests. But here in Virginia Beach and elsewhere, anyone who thinks they have symptoms can come and be screened. They're asked a series of questions about exposure and symptoms. And then if they meet enough criteria, they get a test.

KELLY: And is the reason to do these in this way - as drive-through tests - is it as obvious as it sounds? It's quick, and it's relatively safe.

MCCAMMON: That's right. It's fast. It minimizes exposure to potentially other patients in an ER or a doctor's office, also minimizes risk to the medical personnel who are so important right now.

And another really important piece here is it takes the burden off of hospital emergency rooms. Paul Gaden is president of Sentara Princess Anne Hospital here in Virginia Beach.

PAUL GADEN: Our emergency rooms are extremely busy. We're taking care of both symptomatic and asymptomatic patients. Our biggest challenge today is those that are the worried well, and we encouraged the worried well to stay home and keep our emergency rooms for those that truly are sick and have the flu-like symptoms.

MCCAMMON: Which is, of course, something that ERs around the country are concerned about as this virus spreads.

KELLY: Sure, so how many are we potentially talking? Are these drive-through sites going to be popping up everywhere?

MCCAMMON: They are. I mean, it's hard to get a precise number right now because they are starting to pop up all over the country - Massachusetts, Ohio, Texas, California, among others. The American Hospital Association says they don't have any firm data right now, but they're definitely seeing more drive-through test sites. And the federal government says they're providing resources for these.

But we do know that in places like Stanford and Virginia Beach, hospitals are doing this independently because, in many cases, they've been able to get out ahead of the federal government. I talked to a physician at Stanford who's running drive-through testing there. She says they've tested several hundred people so far and soon will be able to test about a thousand people per day across the Bay Area.

KELLY: So early stages, but so far, they're working and people are coming.

MCCAMMON: To an extent - I mean, there's been a lot of interest. In some places, we've seen reports that they just have not been able to keep up with the overwhelming demand. Our member station WBHM in Birmingham, Ala., reports that a drive-through site had to shut down early today because there was just so much demand, it was causing traffic problems. The testing I saw in Virginia Beach was going pretty smoothly yesterday. People were in and out in several minutes from what I observed.

But the White House testing czar has cautioned that these drive-through coronavirus test sites won't be 100% perfect right away. But he's hopeful that they will help us get a handle on who's sick.

KELLY: All right.

Thank you, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: Thank you.

KELLY: NPR's Sarah McCammon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.