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BayCare shortens drive-through coronavirus testing hours and tightens requirements

There were no long lines at BayCare’s seven drive-through testing facilities Friday, But if you have no symptoms, you won’t get tested for COVID-19.
A motorist pulls up Wednesday for a coronavirus test outside a BayCare health center on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard in North Tampa.
A motorist pulls up Wednesday for a coronavirus test outside a BayCare health center on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard in North Tampa. [ PAUL GUZZO | Times ]
Published Mar. 21, 2020|Updated Mar. 21, 2020

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Three days into launching drive-thru COVID-19 testing in the Tampa Bay area, BayCare Health System announced it is shortening its hours and restricting requirements for testing because it has limited testing supplies.

As of 5 p.m. Friday, BayCare’s seven pop-up sites had tested 2,870 people in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Polk counties for the novel coronavirus.

An additional 2,113 were turned away over the three-day period for not meeting the criteria for testing, according to data from BayCare.

“We need to be testing symptomatic individuals — those with fever, shortness of breath, a cough — and reserving our limited supplies for those cases,” BayCare’s chief medical officer, Dr. Nishant Anand said, in a statement. “Every asymptomatic patient we test means one less swab is available to those more likely to test positive.”

Starting Saturday, the seven locations will only be open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. They will still operate seven days a week.

In order to qualify for a test, a person must currently be experiencing either a fever, cough or shortness of breath. Even then, they must meet a second requirement from a list of five options, which include those who have recently traveled or are immunocompromised.

Physicians referring patients for testing are being asked to complete a new form that the patient will bring to the testing site. The form is explicit about the need for a patient to be displaying physical symptoms as well as meeting other criteria for screening as established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, BayCare spokeswoman Vjollca Hysenlika said that while a physicians referral is preferred, a person who meets all requirements will not be turned away. BayCare will test any individual who is experiencing symptoms and meets state and federal requirements.

The shifting announcements from local, state and national officials is causing confusion among the general public.

Tom Ambrose, 65, of Pinellas Park, said he tried to get tested Thursday after he heard President Donald Trump say that anyone in a high risk group who wanted to get tested could. This includes seniors with a serious chronic health condition, such as heart disease or cancer.

Ambrose, who has high blood pressure and was in the hospital last week for a post-surgery follow-up, wanted to know whether or not he had contracted COVID-19. He got in his car Thursday morning and went to the Carillon testing location in St. Petersburg because he knew it offered drive-thru testing.

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But when he told the BayCare official at the first tent that he wasn’t currently experiencing symptoms, he was turned away. Ambrose was livid.

Ambrose said he “was not only refused a test but treated like a criminal because I asked why.”

Later that day, Vince Cocks, 67, of St. Petersburg, drove up to the same testing center. Cocks, who started experiencing shortness of breath at work Tuesday, was considered symptomatic and received a test. He also had a referral from a doctor via a telehealth appointment.

“It was the first question they asked me,” Cocks said of the referral.

Overall, Cocks said the process was quick and relatively simple. Though, unlike previous descriptions from BayCare doctors, he did find the swab itself painful.

“That thing hurts, man.” Cocks said. “That thing goes probably to your amygdala, oh my Lord. But it goes away real quick.”

Cocks was given instructions on quarantining and tracking his symptoms. He was told he would receive his results within the week.

Despite seeing more than a thousand cars a day, lines and wait times remained short throughout the day Friday.

BayCare’s Carillon testing site saw a slow trickle of cars come through around 3 p.m. Friday.

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.

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.

The testing is open to all patients, not just those from BayCare. Drive-through testing provides a safe way for people to get tested without having to step out of their car. The drive-through 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 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 with the patient and government agencies to cover the cost.

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, BayCare officials said only an individual in a car or truck who meets the criteria — either passenger or driver — can be tested.

“Having patients in their cars is key part of the protection protocols for drive-through testing,” James said. “Individuals may reach out to the Florida Department of Health or their physician to seek other options.”

You can get tested if ...

You currently have a fever, a cough or shortness of breath 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.

Drive-through testing is available from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. every day at these locations:

  • 900 Carillon Parkway, Suite 106, St. Petersburg.
  • 4821 U.S. 19, New Port Richey.
  • 3351 N McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater.
  • 3440 W Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Blvd., Suite 100, Tampa.
  • 17512 Dona Michelle Drive, Suite 5, Tampa.
  • 2442 Bloomingdale Ave., Valrico.
  • 36245 U.S. 27, Haines City.

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