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UW Medicine testing station
Nurses wait for the next patient to be screened for coronavirus at a UW Medicine testing station. (UW Medicine Photo / Randy Carnell)

UW Medicine patients are getting checked for coronavirus at a drive-through station set up in a hospital clinic’s parking lot.

A similar station was created a couple of weeks ago inside a parking garage at UW Medical Center Northwest, to test employees of the University of Washington’s medical system. The by-appointment-only station was set up near the original site, at the hospital’s outpatient clinic, and began serving high-risk patients on Monday.

“We have already started to do testing in the hospital emergency department and some clinics. But there are a number of our patients who may not be appropriate for sending in to those environments, to minimize the risk of infection to themselves, and perhaps to others,” Thomas Hei, director of outpatient services for UW Medical Center, explained in a UW video about the operation.

Patients can drive to a spot where they roll down the window and have nasal swab samples taken without getting out of the car. The process takes only a few minutes. Samples are then sent to the lab for processing, with results available within a couple of days.

The drive-through model was pioneered in South Korea and is being adapted by a growing number of medical networks and public health agencies.

During a White House briefing, Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services, said 47 drive-through stations are due to be set up over the next few days in about a dozen states, as part of a public-private partnership facilitated by federal officials. Eventually, hundreds of stations could pop up around the nation.

Giroir said federal health workers conducted trial runs at a test site on Monday. “We had a lot of kinks in the system,” he admitted.

No such kinks were reported at UW Medicine’s site. Fifteen patients were served on the station’s first day of operation, and Hei expects the pace to pick up.

“I can’t emphasize enough that this is not as if this is a retail drive-up, drive-through testing site,” Hei said. “We estimate that we should be able to test somewhere around 50 a day — maybe more, depending on staffing and equipment.”

Laurie Kuypers was one of several mask-wearing nurses who were taking samples. “I work in the operating room, so I’m kind of used to wearing a mask all day long,” she said. “But changing in and out of clothes this often is interesting, to say the least. … I never imagined I’d be out here doing this. But I’m happy to do it, of course.”

UW Medicine patients who are experiencing symptoms associated with COVID-19 — for example, fever, a dry cough, sore throat and shortness of breath — should call their physician or the UW Medicine Virtual Clinic to find out whether testing is needed. If the answer is yes, patients will be given an appointment for testing at the drive-through station or at an established UW Medicine clinic.

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