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Coronavirus: Drive-Through Testing Centers


Here in Washington state, testing hospital workers for coronavirus has become a top priority. That's because these workers will be essential if the virus continues to spread throughout the state. And one hospital in Seattle has even set up a drive-through clinic for health care workers who have symptoms. NPR's Jon Hamilton has this report.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: The clinic operates out of a parking garage at the UW Medical Center in Northwest Seattle. When workers drive in, they're greeted by Jan Nakahara. She's a nurse with the University of Washington's health care system called UW Medicine.

JAN NAKAHARA: I'm going to have you pull up. Don't get out of your car.


NAKAHARA: Stay in the car at all times...


NAKAHARA: And we'll meet you there.

HAMILTON: Nakahara says at the moment, the drive-through clinic is limited to health care workers in the university system. And they need to have a fever, dry cough or other symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus.

NAKAHARA: If they had symptoms, they would go and fill out a survey online. And then if the screeners thought it sounded like it was a possibility of being coronavirus, then they were given an appointment today.

HAMILTON: The next stop at the testing clinic is in front of three white medical tents. A nurse named Jeff Gates approaches each car in full protective gear, including a clear plastic face mask.

JEFF GATES: Hello. My name's Jeff. I'm the employee health nurse here. We're going to be doing your swabs today.

HAMILTON: Gates prepares to take two swabs, one from each nostril.

GATES: OK. So I'll have you lean your head back just a little bit. Try not to move. Sorry, I know it's uncomfortable.


GATES: OK, one down.

HAMILTON: Gates collects the samples and seals them in plastic tubes. They'll be processed by a lab a few miles away.

GATES: So we're going to be testing this for flu A/B and RSV. And then...


GATES: We're also testing for COVID-19.


GATES: We'll get results back to you as soon as we can.


GATES: Yeah. Thank you. I hope you feel better soon.


HAMILTON: Then it's time for Gates to put on fresh protective gear and get ready for the next arrival.

GATES: It's been going great - very smooth. We've had probably seven people come through so far this morning.

HAMILTON: The drive-through clinic is about more than convenience. Dr. Seth Cohen, an infectious disease expert at the University of Washington, says it's also about safety.

SETH COHEN: Because of the way this virus could be spread, we want to make sure there's good ventilation. And so rather than using space inside of the hospital, it's actually easier to achieve good ventilation with these tents and excellent airflow that you can feel.

HAMILTON: Cohen says testing health care workers is the priority right now because they will be essential if the coronavirus continues to spread.

COHEN: And so we want to make sure that if our staff tests negative, we get them back to work as soon as we can. But if they test positive, we want to keep them out of the workforce to make sure that they're not going on to infect other staff or patients.

HAMILTON: Cohen hopes to expand drive-through testing to first responders who may have been exposed. He says wider testing should help public health officials assess the current outbreak.

COHEN: It will absolutely give us a clue as to whether COVID has other epicenters within Seattle, including other institutions.

HAMILTON: Cohen says, so far, the tests have found lots of flu but only a few cases of coronavirus.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jon Hamilton is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. Currently he focuses on neuroscience and health risks.