As Florida ramps up its efforts to screen for coronavirus, it's starting to open drive-thru testing sites across the state. But there's still challenges with supplies and testing availability.
A steady stream of cars flowed through the parking lot of the BayCare Urgent Care Center in St. Petersburg, one of seven of its facilities in the Tampa Bay region that has been temporarily converted into a COVID-19 screening site.
Health workers in yellow protective gowns sported surgical masks, face shields and gloves as they approached the vehicles and took nasal swabs of the people inside.
Those samples are going to Quest Diagnostics, one of the commercial labs that is helping expand coronavirus testing nationwide, said Dr. Nathan Waldrep, Chief Medical Officer for BayCare's Urgent Care Division.
"This is going to give us a clear understanding of the prevalence of the disease in the community, actually then helping us gauge the response to that prevalence," he said.
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But not all cars made it to those health workers. First, staff members in blue shirts holding clipboards asked interested patients a series of questions to see if they met department of health criteria for COVID-19 testing.
"In the past 14 days have you had a fever or the new onset of a cough or shortness of breath?" Waldrep explained.
Drivers who said no were sent on their way. Those with symptoms had to meet additional factors in order to move on:
- Have you recently traveled internationally or on a cruise?
- Have you recently traveled to New York, Washington, Oregon or California?
- Have you been in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19?
- Are you 65 or older with a serious health condition i.e. cancer, lung disease, etc.?
- Are you immunocompromised?
As of Wednesday evening on its first day offering drive-thru screening, BayCare had 1,329 patients visit its seven sites and 717 were tested for COVID-19.
Waldrep said it should take about five days to get results back.
"We're currently trying to test as many individuals as we can, but the limitation will be at some point if the demand for testing outstrips the actual testing materials, the swabs to collect it, etc." he said.
Protective equipment and testing materials needed
That's been the challenge for most of the mobile testing sites across the state.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said Wednesday afternoon about 17 sites are operating or about to open in major parts of the state including Tallahassee, Jacksonville and South Florida, which has about 50 percent of the state's cases.
Some sites, like the federally-qualified health center FoundCare in Palm Beach County, didn't realize just how great the demand was for testing.
CEO Yolette Bonnet said within days of announcing their drive-thru site the small nonprofit received more than 12,000 calls from interested patients with hundreds showing up to the parking lot.
On the first day they could only collect samples from 65 people.
"To turn people away because we're rationing test kits, it just breaks your heart," Bonnet said.
They've had to tell people to stop leaving messages at the center as FoundCare’s 150 employees cannot meet the demands of caring for patients and responding to more calls, Bonnet said.
They have scheduled appointments for test sample collection into May, but so far only have enough protective gear and swabs to get through the next two weeks, she said.
"So we're begging and pleading with everybody, and so they're trickling in," she said.
The county health department and other members of the community have been helping with supplies as best they can, Bonnet said.
DeSantis said getting more equipment is a top priority as testing continues to expand.
He said the Florida National Guard is expected to start testing people at a site at Broward Memorial Health Care by the end of the week.
He said the site will have five lanes for cars to move through, with one dedicated to testing first responders. The site will also require appointments set up through Broward Memorial.
"And so we're going to try to make it orderly, we're going to try to make it so people can get in and out, we don't want people waiting in line for four hours," DeSantis said.
The governor said the National Guard will be equipped with 800 sets of protective gear and 1,700 collection swabs. And testing will at least initially be done at state labs and the hospital lab so results will come in faster, some within 24 hours.
"Hopefully we'll really be able to expand this model and be able to test a wider variety of individuals," he said.
DeSantis said with thousands of tests now being done in the private sector, Floridians are being tested at a rate that's about three or four times higher than they were a week ago. But he said it's still only a fraction of what's needed.