Don’t look now but drive-thru coronavirus testing may finally be going mainstream. Walgreens is the latest to announce plans for testing sites in fifteen locations across seven states, and this time they’re open to the general public. Here’s the latest info on how drive-thru COVID-19 screening works, and how it impacts you.
What’s Taken So Long?
Because of extreme shortages, tests have been largely limited to those with the most severe symptoms - but that’s starting to change. Biotech companies have been developing new tests and ramping up production for weeks, resulting in increased screening capacity overall and making testing available to the general public for the first time. While there is still a ways to go before testing demand can be met nationally, the noticeable increase in drive-thru testing locations and availability is a sign that this may soon change.
The Benefits of Drive-Thru COVID-19 Screening
The ability to conduct high volume screenings is essential for getting the COVID-19 outbreak under control. Under normal circumstances, one would just go to a hospital or clinic to be tested for a disease. But during a pandemic, doing so is a massive public health risk in itself because of the demand large-scale testing places on healthcare resources and facilities, and the risk of worsening the spread to more individuals. Drive-thru screening effectively solves these problems by:
- • Better isolating people, which leads to lower transmission rates
- • Ensuring hospital and clinic spaces and resources are used more efficiently
- • Making it logistically possible for high-volume testing to take place
Social Isolation Limits Transmission
It is vastly preferable to test patients in their cars versus in a clinic because those that are sick are much less likely to infect others in their surroundings. Cars are like little isolation chambers - allowing health officials to perform an essential medical service while controlling and limiting the risk to themselves and others.
Reducing Stress on Hospitals and Clinics Saves Lives
Experts agree that the greatest risk during a pandemic like this is that health-care facilities will become overwhelmed and incapable of providing adequate care. Drive-thru testing helps alleviate this stress by diverting people with mild symptoms away from the hospital to be screened, allowing those resources to be used on people that are the most sick and require the most care, which saves lives in a pandemic.
Convenience and Efficiency for Patients and Testing Facilities
The challenge of testing millions of people is massive. The process has to be one that can handle capacity at that scale efficiently or it won’t work - fast enough to work through numbers that large, and convenient enough that people will actually do it before their condition requires additional medical intervention.
Deploying drive-thru testing tents nationally makes this possible. You can simply get your test and go home in a matter of minutes without ever having to get out of the car, allowing for more people to be screened in an environment that won’t contribute to further spread of the virus. If only everything could be that easy!
In addition, hospitals, pharmacies and clinics can easily set up drive-thru COVID-19 medical tents in nearby parking lots or open spaces where drive-thru screening tests can be administered to hundreds of patients a day without interfering with normal operations. Today’s medical tents are easy to set up, durable, and can be outfitted with lighting and heating kits that allow testing to continue day or night and regardless of the weather.
How Does Drive-Thru COVID-19 Testing Work? A Full Breakdown
Whether you end up taking a COVID-19 test or not, these are the main steps in the process:
- • Determining Whether You Need a Test
- • Preparing for the Test
- • Taking the Test
- • Getting Test Results
Should I Be Screened for COVID-19? Determining Whether You Need a Test
Until just recently, testing has been limited to high-risk individuals. This primarily includes people who:
- • Are 60 years or older
- • Have underlying medical conditions
- • Are experiencing severe symptoms
- • Are essential personnel like healthcare workers, police and other first-responders
But now it’s starting to change. In order to qualify for the testing that’s becoming available to the general public, you’ll still need to meet a set of criteria in order to ensure tests aren’t wasted unnecessarily, but the restrictions are loosening to include people not in high-risk groups.
Public testing sites like CVS and Walgreens have required forms on their websites that determine test eligibility. Many sites that aren’t open to the public still require a referral to be tested - which you can get from your physician or by contacting your local health department.
If you aren’t sure, other resources like the CDC Self-Checker can help you determine your risk level, and you should always consult a physician if possible.
Preparing for a COVID-19 Drive-Thru Screening Test
Whether you have a referral or are looking to take a publicly available test, here are some good tips to remember:
- • Call your testing facility - many facilities require an appointment for testing, and they may have specific instructions to share before you arrive.
- • Bring your physician's order (if required) along with a photo ID to the test site. It’s also best to bring your health insurance card if you have one.
- • <>Ask about preparations or restrictions before arrival - some testing sites may have you refrain from eating or medication prior to the test.
- • Limit the number of people in the car to yourself, other than a caretaker if necessaryb
- • Tests are free - Congress has passed legislation covering the cost of tests.
Taking a Drive-Thru Coronavirus Test
Arriving at the Testing Site
When you arrive at the testing location, look for lanes marked to enter the testing area and signs with instructions near the testing tents. The new public test sites will usually have multiple lines (CVS sites have five lanes for testing) to help keep wait times down. Also, it’s good form to keep your window up until instructed otherwise, since the whole idea is to minimize transmission risks.
Once you’re in line, a clinician will check you in, ask questions about your symptoms and provide specific instructions for how to proceed. This person will likely be outfitted from head to toe in personal protective gear, including a gown, gloves, face-shield, and mask. They might ask you to follow directions like keeping windows up until it’s time for the test, or ensure airflow is recirculating within your car rather than escaping outside. If there are multiple lines you’ll be instructed where to go to complete the test.
How a Drive-Thru COVID-19 Screening Test Actually Works
The actual COVID-19 screening test is evolving quickly. Until now, tests have needed to be administered by a professional because it required swabbing deep into the nasal cavity to collect a suitable sample. Understandably, these were pretty uncomfortable to take and necessitated close contact between workers and the test recipient, increasing the chances of transmission. These tests would then need to be sent to a laboratory for completion, and results could take several days.
The new tests being rolling out for public use are a major improvement from that system. Patients now will be given a test that they can administer themselves in their car without having to drive a swap deep into their nose. Now, people are given a Q-tip-like swab that just needs to be rolled around in both nostrils to get a suitable sample.
Once completed, the test is given back to a worker to process while the patient waits in a nearby parking lot for results, which takes about 15 minutes. If a patient is found to be COVID-19 positive, they’ll receive a packet of information on how to isolate and when to seek medical assistance, if necessary. The result is also logged into a computer, which will greatly improve data around COVID-19 infections and transmission.
All in all, the old test could be completed in 5 or 10 minutes, but results would take several days to get back. The new test being rolled out for the public is said to take around 30-35 minutes, including getting the results. You just get in line, drive up to the medical tent when it’s your turn, take the test. What could be easier than that?
Where to Find Drive-Thru COVID-19 Screening Locations
New testing locations are coming online regularly across the country. The new Walgreens locations will initially roll-out in seven states - Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee and Texas - with more in the plans. CVS currently has locations offering testing in Georgia, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
There are hundreds of other testing facilities across the country. Updated online resources like this from GoodRx.com are useful in locating local testing sites, or you can call your local health department to get more information on plans and facilities near you.
Hopefully before too long more drive-thru COVID-19 screening tents will pop-up nationally to meet the full demand and help prevent further spread of the disease. We’re not there yet, but progress is definitely being made!