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caption: UW Medicine nurses test a patient for coronavirus on March 17, 2020, at the University of Washington Northwest Outpatient Medical Center drive-through testing area in North Seattle.
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UW Medicine nurses test a patient for coronavirus on March 17, 2020, at the University of Washington Northwest Outpatient Medical Center drive-through testing area in North Seattle.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Drive-through COVID-19 testing expands in Seattle

In the far corner of a North Seattle hospital parking lot, people with coronavirus symptoms – and appointments beforehand – drove up in 15-minute intervals Tuesday morning.

The University of Washington has expanded its drive-through coronavirus testing to include first responders and University of Washington Medicine patients with COVID-19 symptoms, as well as the health care system’s staff.

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A patient pulled up and rolled down his window to be checked in by medical assistant Miriam Fuentes in her face mask, clear-plastic face shield, gloves and disposable gown over her scrubs.

“We’re used to wearing protective equipment and protecting ourselves, protecting our patients,” said nurse Theresa Malijan, in protective gear from head to toe.

Fuentes gave the man the go-ahead to pull up to two white tents where Malijan told him what to expect: a brief but unpleasant procedure to get a mucus sample.

“What I tell them is the swab is going to be uncomfortable,” Malijan explained to a reporter. “Might make them sneeze. It might make them cough or their eyes water, but when they do, they have to turn their head on the other side, so it doesn't get us.”

Malijan took a 6-inch long cotton swab and inserted it 4 inches into the man’s nostril, then twirled it. She did the same in his other nostril.

A few minutes after driving up, the man drove away.

His nasal specimen went into a sterile container to be sent to the University of Washington virology lab for analysis to see if the RNA in it matched that of the novel coronavirus that is spreading like wildfire around the United States and the world.

The frontline staff in the hospital parking lot stepped into the second white tent to change out of and throw out their protective gear and disinfect themselves before the next patient drove up.

On Monday, the first day of testing at this site, the nurses took swabs from 15 patients.

UW Medical Center associate medical director Thomas Hei said they expected to see 20 patients on Tuesday and had the capacity to test about 50 in a day—possibly more if staffing and equipment allow.

President Donald Trump stated falsely on March 6 that anyone can be tested for coronavirus. More than a week later, U.W's by-appointment-only testing is being offered to a lucky, or unlucky, few.

“We are focusing on the highest-risk patients of the University of Washington, and this is by appointment only,” Hei said. “If you think you might need to be tested or you have symptoms of concern, you should call your doctor.”

He declined to give a specific answer on how soon patients could expect test results.

“We are telling patients to expect several days without giving them a specific number of days to expect the result,” Hei said. “It’s a little bit unpredictable right now.”

One limiting factor on the scale of testing: UW Medical Center has not received as much personal protective equipment as it asked for from the federal government's Strategic National Stockpile.

Hei said UW aims to open additional testing locations soon. Currently, only drivers can get tested at the drive-through site: no pedestrians allowed.

“This site is really for patients who can drive and who are able to drive ideally by themselves so as to minimize transmission to other passengers in the car,” Hei said.

He said UW is very concerned about equity of access to health care and is working “very hard” to create a way for people who don’t have a car to get the equivalent of drive-through testing.


Drive-thru testing at UW Medicine