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Drive-through testing
A nurse takes samples during a drive-through coronavirus test. (UW Medicine Photo)

A drive-through coronavirus testing site set up at a University of Washington hospital could serve as the model for more such facilities around the Seattle area — and perhaps around the country.

For now, the site in the parking garage of UW Medical Center Northwest is available only by appointment for hospital employees.

“To date, more than 175 staff, faculty and trainees have requested testing, and as of end of day Sunday, 94 have been tested for both flu and COVID-19,” Seth Cohen, the hospital’s medical director of infection prevention and employee health, told GeekWire today in an email.

Cohen said that’s just the start. “We will continue to expand our capacity at this location, and we hope to set up additional locations in the city to improve access to our staff,” he said.

Coronavirus Live Updates: The latest COVID-19 developments in Seattle and the world of tech

The basic idea is similar to a concept pioneered in South Korea, which has taken advantage of drive-through booths as well as other strategies to run about 15,000 free coronavirus tests per day. South Korean public health officials say the number of new daily infections has declined in recent days.

Seattle isn’t at that point yet: Thirty-three new cases and three additional deaths were reported today in Seattle-King County, raising the county’s total to 116 confirmed cases and 20 deaths. But the rise in reported cases may be due in part to improvements in Seattle’s testing capability. It’s been less than a week since UW Medicine started using its own genetic test for coronavirus.

Here’s how the drive-through system works at UW Medical Center Northwest: If employees have symptoms of an upper respiratory infection — for example, fever, a new cough and shortness of breath — they can drive into the garage and stop by the testing station. To reduce the risk of infection, they stay in their cars while a nurse uses nasal swabs to take samples. The process takes about five minutes.

In 24 to 48 hours, the employees get their results as well as guidance on the next steps to take.

“Our healthcare providers providing the testing are thoroughly trained in the use of personal protection equipment and in infection prevention best practices,” Cohen said. “They enter trained, and are continuously retrained on our protocols to ensure that these providers are safe. The safety of our staff is our utmost priority.”

So far, none of the tests conducted at the drive-through station has turned up evidence of COVID-19 coronavirus, “but we are still seeing a fair amount of influenza in our clinic,” Cohen said.

“If someone tests positive for COVID-19, they would be notified immediately by our staff and given additional instructions on how to proceed. This usually includes home isolation, unless their symptoms are worsening and they require additional medical evaluation,” Cohen said.

UW Medicine employees who have been exposed to COVID-19 can also get tested at other sites, such as Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center.

Cohen said the drive-through procedure might well become part of the wider virus-tracking system currently being considered by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “We look forward to partnering with them in our clinic as a study site,” he said.

It may look like a makeshift pop-up site, but Cohen expects the drive-through station to stick around for a while.

“Unfortunately, no one knows yet how long the COVID epidemic will last,” he said. “We are preparing for the long haul in order to best support our community.”

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