How Drive-Through Coronavirus Testing Took Over the World
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Other countries are discovering the approach that has helped South Korea test its population faster than any other nation.
Since January, global health care has been stretched on an unprecedented scale. The world has nearly 2 million recorded cases of coronavirus patients — and that’s likely only a sample of the total number of those carrying the infection, and potentially spreading it further. “We have a simple message for all countries: Test, test, test,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a virtual press conference in mid-March. Yet with medical facilities and isolation centers overwhelmed by the influx of patients, that’s easier said than done.
Now, a growing number of countries are trying to change that by borrowing a strategy that has been central to South Korea’s emergence as the world’s biggest success story in the face of the pandemic: drive-through testing centers. It’s an approach that has helped Seoul test about 20,000 people every day — significantly more people per capita than any other country. WHO figures show that South Korea’s fatality rate from the coronavirus is just 1.7 percent, compared to the global rate of about 5 percent.
(U.S. deaths from COVID-19 — indicated by red line — compared to American losses in modern wars.)
Others are following suit. In the U.S., the University of Washington launched the first such center in March, using a parking garage to ensure good ventilation and social distancing. Now, other states like Hawaii, Connecticut and New York — which has a six-lane drive-through facility — are also implementing the new strategy. In the Bay Area, Stanford University is running drive-through tests at seven locations.
Simply imagine a highway toll booth where you generally stop to make a payment. Here you are stopping to give a swab sample instead.
Dr. Ankur Mutreja, infectious diseases specialist, Cambridge University
In Europe, hospitals in Germany, France, Spain, Ireland and Wales have all opened drive-through centers. Governments in the UAE and Israel and a private lab in India have launched their centers, as have South Africa and Nigeria.
The idea is simple. The tests are quick — they typically take five minutes. By staying in your car, you reduce human contact with others, including the clinicians taking your sample. All of this reduces the burden on already overwhelmed hospitals.
“Simply imagine a highway toll booth where you generally stop to make a payment,” says Dr. Ankur Mutreja, who heads the infectious diseases section at Cambridge University’s department of medicine. “Here you are stopping to give a swab sample instead.”
Many of the countries adopting this testing method are already deep in battle, with community spread of the disease making tracking of patients much harder than in the initial days of the pandemic. But that makes quick testing facilities even more important, as countries race to try and flatten the curve.
And the infrastructure and institutional muscle memory countries build might well prove critical to their response the next time a fast-spreading virus comes around. Take South Korea’s example.
The East Asian nation first introduced drive-through testing during a 2015 outbreak of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) that killed 38 people. Five years later, when the coronavirus came around, they were prepared to contain the outbreak before it became untraceable. South Korea “learned their lessons tremendously well,” says Mutreja.
Here’s how drive-through testing works: People who suspect they have symptoms can arrive at a center to undergo a quick swab of the nose, mouth and throat by staff in protective gear. The tests are then sent to a laboratory working around the clock to deliver results via text, phone, email or online portal. “There’s really pretty minimal interaction with the patient until you get to the testing step,” says Dr. Seth Cohen, medical director of infection prevention and employee health at the University of Washington.
It’s a win-win situation, says Dr. Megan Mahoney, section chief of primary care at Stanford Medicine who spearheaded the drive-through project in the Bay Area. The Stanford tests take only four minutes. “Providers feel comfortable coming into close contact with patients at high risk for COVID because they are wearing full PPE, and the patients remain protected by not having to come into a facility that might put them at greater risk for exposure,” she says.
And it’s helping authorities repurpose empty locations, rather than having to build new facilities and dip into needed funds. Beginning mid-March, Magen David Adom (Israel’s national emergency medical service) began to launch centers in its major cities. Ireland has converted its largest stadium, an 80,000-seat arena usually used for Gaelic football, to a massive testing center at a time the arena was lying vacant since all sporting events had been called off. At full operational capacity, it will handle an average of eight cars every quarter of an hour, 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Once the threat of the virus passes, all these facilities — whether at hospitals or in stadiums — can be easily dismantled.
Experts say the recent and rapid expansion of drive-through testing could trigger a ripple effect. Apart from limiting the number of people who need to visit a hospital or regular testing lab, and thereby managing the burden on health care institutions, these centers also help prevent further transmission and spread.
To be sure, challenges remain. “The problem is not the lack of technology,” stresses Mutreja, reiterating WHO’s point on the need for more tests. “Instead, it is the speed of diagnostic test approval processes, reliability of tests, standardization across the nation and the scale at which these tests are suddenly needed in times like these.” When New Orleans started drive-through testing in March, people initially often had to wait a week to get results, in part because of poor communication between the lab and public health officials.
Still, as countries embrace this approach, they’ll likely build to these standards better, just as South Korea has done. If they do, they’ll be in a position to stop the next pandemic in its tracks more swiftly, like Seoul has done with the coronavirus.