By Liora Engel-Smith
As North Carolina’s COVID-19 caseload climbs, health care providers are setting up drive-thru screening and testing sites for the novel coronavirus across the state. But supply shortages in at least two collection sites led to temporary or extended closures last week.
Drive-thru sites allow people whose doctor deemed the test necessary to get evaluated and swabbed for COVID-19 in their vehicles. The samples are then sent on to be tested elsewhere, and patients get their results at a later date. By testing people in their car, drive-thru clinics hope to reduce exposure to COVID-19 and divert potentially infected patients who aren’t seriously ill from emergency departments and doctor’s offices.
The exact number of drive-thru sites across the state is unknown. Elizabeth Tilson, state health director, said at a press conference earlier this week that private and public organizations are setting up these testing sites and the state health department is assisting as needed but isn’t tracking the number of clinics. At least two sites — Cone Health and Pardee UNC Health drive-thru at a local community college — have experienced supply shortages that quickly led to their closure.
Pardee’s site will reopen today, but it’s unclear if and when the Cone Health site will reopen.
“The same protective gear used at the collection site is also used in our hospitals. To protect our staff and hospitalized patients, we have made this difficult decision,” says Bruce Swords, chief physician executive at Cone Health in a press release about the closure Friday. “We have to be able to protect the most critically ill patients and those who provide their care.”
Other health care providers, including UNC Health and Novant also announced they opened drive-thru clinics. Novant opened five drive-thru clinics last week and is planning on opening three more this week, a spokeswoman said Sunday. Atrium Health is opening sites as well, the Charlotte Observer reported this week, and so is Duke Health, the hospital system said on its site. Health officials in New Hanover County, where a presumed positive case was discovered earlier this week, are also exploring that option.
Different tests in different locations
At UNC Health, an in-house university lab is processing the tests that are being collected within the system. The health system set up locations at its 13 campuses across the state and at some of its satellite clinics on Monday, according to spokesman Mark Derewicz, who said that the FDA has permitted the use of these tests on UNC patients only. University officials are seeking approval to extend the use of the tests, he added.
As of Friday, the lab at UNC Medical Center ran 441 tests.
For more information:
- UNC drive-thru clinic: UNC Health can only test UNC patients who have a doctor’s prescription. People will be screened for flu, and if they test negative, they will be tested for COVID-19. Drive-thru locations are available at the health system’s 13 campuses and some satellite clinics. For more information, contact UNC’s COVID-19 helpline, 888-850-2684.
- Pardee UNC Health drive-thru clinic at Blue Ridge Community College: Testing is available Monday – Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and Sundays, 1 p.m.-5 p.m. beginning Monday, March 23 with a doctor’s approval. The drive-thru clinic is at 180 West Campus Drive in Flat Rock. For more information, contact the Pardee COVID-19 Helpline, 828-694-8048.
- Novant: Testing available in several sites, including Huntersville, Kernersville, Winston-Salem, Matthews and Thomasville. A new drive-thru location will also open in Salisbury on Tuesday, according to a press release from Novant. A Novant spokeswoman said other locations will open this week. Patients must have a doctor’s approval to get tested. For more information, visit Novant’s coronavirus site or call the health system’s 24/7 hotline at 1-877-9NOVANT.
The Cone Health drive-thru clinic in Greensboro was up and running on Tuesday and collected 91 samples on its first day, said Deborah Grant, chief nursing officer of ambulatory services. The samples were then sent to LabCorp, which is collaborating with Cone, for testing. Patients received their test results back within four to five days.
But on Friday, the health system said it will no longer test at the site because it didn’t have enough protective gear. The center could reopen should more supplies become available, Cone Health said in a press release.
Pardee UNC Health and Henderson County Department of Public Health, which partnered this week to open a lab at Blue Ridge Community College in Flat Rock, also experienced a shortage that led to closure. The drive-thru site was initially opened daily since last Sunday but has changed its hours, according to spokeswoman Erica Allison, who said the drive-thru site is using different kits than the UNC Health testing sites.
Allison said that before the site temporarily closed Thursday for lack of kits, 280 people were tested. She said the site will reopen today.
Pardee’s and Cone’s experience underscores the increasing demand for COVID-19 tests and protective equipment, which have been in short supply thus far. UNC Health and WakeMed announced this weekend they are seeking donations of medical supplies amidst the growing shortage, but a UNC Health spokesman Phil Bridges said on Sunday that the hospital system’s drive-thru clinics are not affected.
At a press conference this week, Tilson, the state health director, said that general testing of people with symptoms will become less important as community spread occurs — where a person tests positive for the virus without known contact with an infected individual.
As of Friday, the state has seen two such cases. Instead, she said, the limited testing resources will likely shift to the screening of people in the high-risk groups and those who live in group settings, such as nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
It’s a question of allocating scarce resources, such as face masks, where they are needed most, she added.
“The personal protective equipment that is needed for [testing] is also the same personal protective equipment that you’re going to need if and when people are needing more medical care so it’s a little bit of a balance.”
This story has been updated to correct a name in a photo caption.