SEATTLE — The University of Washington is rapidly expanding its ability to test people for COVID-19. A drive-thru testing site is already up and running at UW Medical in North Seattle that can test 40 to 50 people per day.
Right now it’s only available to employees and students, but UW Medical plans to expand that testing later this week to include first responders, employees at long-term care facilities and UW patients showing symptoms.
“We need widespread testing right now,” said Dr. Seth Cohen, Medical Director for Infection Prevention at UW Medicine. “There's urgency around it,” he said.
It launched a drive-thru test site at one of the parking garages at its Northwest campus on Friday. There are three tents – one is used to hold supplies for cleaning and things like gloves and gowns, while the other two tents are used for scheduling, holding patients’ protected heath information, and test kits.
The testing itself is drive-thru style and happens outside the tents. On Monday, medical staff stood under heat lamps.
“What we've learned from viruses like SARS and other coronaviruses is they can really rapidly disseminate through a hospital and cripple a health care work force. We're trying to stay ahead of it and prevent that from happening,” Cohen said.
People showing symptoms book an appointment then meet medical staff wearing full protective gear. The patient rolls down a window, and a medical professional swabs the patient in both nasal cavities.
After the swab, it gets put into a tube with a solution to preserve the virus, that all goes into a biohazard bag and into a mini fridge until the end of the day – when it goes to a UW lab for sample to be tested.
After each patient, the medical staff changes into a completely new set of personal protective equipment - from gowns, to gloves, to masks. The staff also cleans their hands and arms.
“To make sure they're not contaminating themselves,” Cohen said.
The whole thing is so quick, patients can be scheduled every 10 minutes.
It looks very similar to the drive-thru testing South Korea is doing at a much higher volume, but UW is expanding too as soon as later this week. (Cohen said they’ve been working on the process for several months and the drive-thru idea was developed parallel to South Korea.)
“We’re looking into really rapidly scaling this up,” Cohen said.
UW Medicine plans to open another clinic, likely near Harborview Medical Center or south of the Seattle, and and open testing to first responders, employees at long-term care facilities, and any UW Medicine patient showing symptoms.
But it's also dealing with shortages on medical equipment, which has become a global problem as coronavirus and fears ramp up.
“Our supplies are stretched thin,” Cohen said. He said they currently have enough stockpiled, but challenges in getting more could limit its ability to expand testing.
“Supply chain issues are a significant concern and we need to be planning ahead for the next week or two weeks to make sure we have enough. It's amazing what you have for granted and all of a sudden you don't have enough gowns or swabs or masks,” he said.
But the current plan is still to test as many people as possible, as fast as possible.
“We are only going to get on top of this outbreak if we know who is affected and are able to quarantine people rapidly,” Cohen said.
UW Medicine and the Seattle Flu Study is also working with the Gates Foundation to develop a at home COVID-19 test kit. But Cohen said for example, there would be differences in home swabbing and swabbing by a medical professional -- and that process is still being examined with no timeline for a launch.
He said once a home-test kit is approved, they would use it to supplement their drive-thru clinics