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ST. PETERSBURG — One by one, cars pulled up to the white tent and awaited instructions.
The occupants, all of whom met strict criteria set by state and national health experts, are some of the first people in Tampa Bay to undergo drive-thru testing for the fast-spreading novel coronavirus.
The process took only a couple of minutes for each car. Medical professionals in yellow gowns and standard surgical masks placed a swab in each person’s nose to collect a sample, as they would with a flu test. The feeling is said to be mildly irritating, but not invasive or painful. Only the nose was swabbed; nothing was placed down the throat.
“The worst is that you feel like you’ve got to sneeze,” said Dr. Nathan Waldrep, chief medical officer for BayCare’s urgent care division, who was at a testing site in St. Petersburg on Wednesday. “Eyes water, sneeze a little bit. It lasts five seconds and it’s gone.”
Each professional wore blue gloves and a clear face shield to protect against a patient who might sneeze or cough. Once the sample was secured, the gloves were tossed, new ones donned and the process repeated with the next car.
One struggle in stopping the spread of the respiratory virus has been getting a handle on how many are infected. A shortage of test kits and medical information stymied the efforts at first. But BayCare is expanding availability by opening seven drive-thru test sites Wednesday at its offices throughout the Tampa Bay area.
“This is going to give us a clear understanding of the prevalence of the disease in the community, actually then helping us gauge a response,” Waldrep said.
The seven pop-up sites opened at 9 a.m. A total of 1,329 patients came through as of 5 p.m. and 717 were screened as high risk so a specimen was taken for COVID-19 testing. The rest were turned away because they did not meet the requirements issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Protection and the Florida Department of Health.
The testing is open to participants from BayCare or elsewhere and allows them a safe way to learn their status without having to step out of their car. The drive-thru style also means medical professionals only have to change out their gloves after every swab instead of constantly replacing their full gear.
People do not have to pay for the testing up front, but BayCare is collecting insurance information. Officials there believe a new federal law will compel insurance and government payers to cover the entire cost, spokeswoman Joni James said. For people who don’t have insurance, BayCare will work the patient and government agencies to cover the cost.
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One downside is that the process excludes people who don’t have access to a car. Anyone coming by foot, bicycle or bus would be turned away. At this time, Waldrep said, anyone in a car or truck who meets the criteria — either passenger or driver — can be tested.
Drive-thru testing will lead to a substantial increase in testing, but availability remains greatly limited because of the strict criteria. Only people who either have a fever or have developed a new cough or shortness of breath in the past 14 days are eligible. Even then, they must meet a second requirement from a list of five options.
Waldrep said he expects the criteria for testing to expand over time as the disease spreads and becomes more prevalent.
“The criteria are ever-changing," Waldrep said. “They have been from the beginning.”
At first, testing was limited to only those who traveled to certain countries and then broadened to include all international visits. Now, it’s expanded to include trips within the country to the four states most affected. As numbers rise in other states, Waldrep said he expects the criteria to expand until it encompasses any and all travel.
At the St. Petersburg location Wednesday, BayCare team members in polo shirts and khakis collected basic information from each person, such as name and phone number. Individuals can expect to receive their results by phone in five to seven days after the tests are sent to a Quest Diagnostic laboratory for review, Waldrep said.
Across the bay, workers at Bay Care Laboratories on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard saw nine vehicles pull in during a half-hour stretch mid-day.
Orange cones guided motorists between the parking lots for the clinic and an adjacent Glory Days Grill. The restaurant and its parking lot, usually packed at lunch, appeared all but empty.
Several Tampa Police Department patrol cars were camped out along nearby roads, to keep order among those who had come in hopes of being tested for the virus.
Someone wearing a protective mask greeted each vehicle before it approached the white tents. Workers outfitted in protective gear had the driver lower the vehicle window, then briefly leaned into the vehicle to collect a sample.
About half of the individuals who visited one site in the morning were turned away because they didn’t fit the testing criteria. But Waldrep said the situation remained calm and people handled the news with relative ease.
“The public has been amazing in this time of concern,” Waldrep said. “We have not had any 'drama’ here at our facility today.”
While the pop-up test sites appeared off to a good start, Waldrep acknowledged it was “unknown territory” for the health care providers. Officials are trying to test as many individuals as they can but at some point demand for testing will outstrip the materials available, he said.
Complicating the process: Local hospitals are seeing more patients becoming ill with the virus.
“We must reserve the capacity to test those most at need,” Waldrep said. “We’re continuing to monitor our supply chain for the testing materials ... but if at some point we don’t have swabs, we won’t be able to test.”
You can get tested if ...
You have a fever or have developed a new cough or shortness of breath in the last 14 days and meet one of these additional requirements:
- Personally have traveled internationally or on a cruise.
- Personally traveled to or from California, Washington, Oregon or New York. These are areas of widespread community transmission.
- Had personal close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
- Are 65 years or older with a serious chronic health condition, such as heart disease or cancer.
- Are immunocompromised.
BayCare drive-thru testing centers are open every day, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., at these locations:
- 900 Carillon Parkway, Suite. 106, St. Petersburg
- 4821 U.S. Highway 19, New Port Richey
- 3351 N McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater
- 3440 W Dr. MLK Jr. Blvd., Suite 100, Tampa
- 17512 Dona Michelle Drive, Suite 5, Tampa
- 2442 Bloomingdale Ave., Valrico
- 36245 U.S. Highway 27, Haines City, FL 33844
Times staff writer Paul Guzzo contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated incorrectly how the coronavirus tests are paid for.
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