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Drive-through testing for coronavirus, explained by an expert

Trump wants to ramp up drive-through testing. It’s a good and safe idea.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment runs a drive-up testing center for Covid-19 at the state lab in Denver, Colorado on March 12, 2020.
RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

President Donald Trump on Friday announced a new plan to combat the coronavirus outbreak: drive-through testing. The “goal is for individuals to drive up and be swabbed without having to leave your car,” Trump said, speaking from the Rose Garden.

That would allow not only for quicker testing to see if someone is actually infected with the virus, but also safer testing, as the potential victim is more isolated in a vehicle than, say, the waiting room of a doctor’s office.

It’s a process that has worked really well in South Korea to curb the spread of Covid-19, as the disease is formally known. According to NPR, “South Korea has tested about 250,000 people since its outbreak began on Jan. 20, with a daily capacity of 15,000. It has conducted 3,600 tests per million people compared to five per million in the U.S.”

New York state has already started such a program in New Rochelle, and now the Trump administration wants to expand drive-through testing across the country.

To understand more about the merits of the administration’s drive-through testing plan, I called Dr. Dena Grayson, a physician and an expert on pandemics. She worked in the private sector on the 2014 Ebola outbreak and was a former Democratic candidate for the US Congress in Florida.

A critic of much of the Trump administration’s response, she’s mostly behind the president’s announcement. “Announcing the good measure of drive-through testing is a great start,” she told me, “but it’s only the beginning.”

Our interview, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Alex Ward

Does the president’s drive-through testing plan sound good to you?

Dena Grayson

I think it’s a great idea. The key to containing a highly infectious, deadly virus is you have to identify who’s infected, track down all their contacts, and quarantine them. If you can’t even detect who’s infected, then you’re done.

Now, I’m unsure why this step wasn’t taken weeks or months ago. The virus has been circulating in the country this whole time, and we have had very limited capacity to detect it. The problem is we’re in a situation where the cat is already out of the bag, and we already have hot zones around the country like Seattle.

Importantly, this will be very effective in places where there’s not a high intensity of infection and we can catch people early. So even though it’s late for much of the country, this is an important step to take.

Alex Ward

What are some of the challenges you foresee with this plan?

Dena Grayson

The testing has to be accessible, yes, but it also needs to be free. We don’t want uninsured folks or undocumented immigrants to fear showing up for a test. This virus doesn’t care if you’re a citizen or not, it doesn’t care if you have insurance or not, it doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, black, white, or brown. It infects, and it kills.

We want to make sure we detect as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, so that we can isolate them.

Alex Ward

From what I can tell, drive-through tests take about 10 to 15 minutes to complete. That’s faster than a walk-in test, right?

Dena Grayson

Yes, but the real benefit isn’t so much the time, it’s the safety of them.

You obviously want to provide other options, of course, because not everyone has a car — let’s get that out of the way first. But what we don’t want to see is a bunch of people flocking to a virus-testing center, walking in, and the few that actually have the disease infecting others around them with it.

If people are in their own vehicle, though, it’s much safer. The workers doing the testing are wearing protective gear, and the patient doesn’t have to leave the vehicle. You’re not going to get exposed to somebody who has the virus. You just get tested and you drive off.

Alex Ward

What’s actually involved in the drive-through testing process?

Dena Grayson

You’re not going to get results in 10 minutes, let’s be clear about that.

What will happen is a worker will swab you, and it won’t really be that much faster compared to physically going into a doctor’s office. Much of the time you’ll spend at the drive-through testing center will be doing paperwork since the swabbing takes just a couple of minutes. But they’re going to have to take your information so they know where to send the results, positive or negative.

Of course, the tester has to send the swabs to a lab, so chances are it will take a day or more to get your results back.

Alex Ward

So it sounds like the process of drive-through testing itself is effective. But, as you alluded to, is it too late to do this? Will it only help America’s response on the margins?

Dena Grayson

We’re a large country, so it’s important to remember that this process’s efficacy varies based on where it’s employed. For the hot zones like Seattle, the genie is a bit out of the bottle there. Testing will help some people in those hotspots, but testing is more useful for areas where the spread isn’t so large.

In those regions of the country where there are very few infections, drive-through testing is truly great because it’s an opportunity to go back to the traditional model: identify which person is infected, track down the contacts, and quarantine those people.

So it’s still worth doing, and we should absolutely do it. But the effectiveness of this approach is going to be different depending upon where you are in the country.

Alex Ward

What’s the next step? How can the government best use drive-through testing and its results to curb the spread of the coronavirus?

Dena Grayson

What we need to do is implement not just drive-through testing but also more convenient options for people who don’t have cars. That could be a like a walk-through clinic, with grids that keep people who come to the appointment at least six feet apart. It’d be smart to have people schedule appointments online so that they don’t bunch up and go against social distancing best practices.

Whatever the method, it needs to be free. It wasn’t clear to me during the press conference that these tests will be free. What about the many millions of Americans who have no insurance? It’s important that everyone can get access to testing.

Then we also need to make sure that there is the appropriate resourcing to then let people know they’re infected and trace down their contacts and quarantine. That is a substantial task.

Announcing the good measure of drive-through testing is a great start, but it’s only the beginning. They really need to get to work — and fast.