What's it like to get a drive-thru test for COVID-19 in northern Michigan?

May 5, 2020

As more tests for COVID-19 become available, drive-thru test sites are popping up across the state. The newest one in northern Michigan is in Bellaire.

Who can be tested?

If you want a test for COVID-19 at the Bellaire Family Health Center, get in line. Because of their scarcity, tests are saved for health care workers with COVID-related symptoms like coughing or shortness of breath. Next on the list are people in assisted living facilities and prisons.

 

A nurse preparing to administer a test for COVID-19 at the Bellaire Family Health Center.
Credit Rachel Krino / Bellaire Family Health Center

"Then we go down to any healthcare workers that are not symptomatic, and then the fourth category would be people working essential functions," said Chief Medical Officer Laurence Yung.

If you meet the criteria, you can get a COVID-19 test at the Health Center drive-thru. On Monday, Dr. Yung went through the site now to show how it works.

What is it like to be tested?

First, a nurse approached his car wearing a protective gown and a mask that looks like a see-through welding helmet. She pulled out a 3 to 4 inch long cotton swab that looked like a long cue tip.

The drive-thru COVID-19 testing site at the Bellaire Family Health Center.
Credit Rachel Krino / Bellaire Family Health Center

"The swab is gonna go into the back of your nose very easy, it’s gonna make your eyes water, might make you sneeze. Could be a little uncomfortable," she told Yung.

After taking his temperature and blood oxygen level,  Yung lowered his facemask below his nose so it only covered his mouth.

"Cover your face with the mask, in case you cough, and put your head back just a little bit," she said.

As she put almost the entire swab into Yung’s nostril to reach the back of his throat, he winced while his eyes welled up. After a few seconds the nurse removed the swab and put it in a small, sealed container.

"It sounds really bad, but to me it’s worse to get your blood drawn," Yung said.

The nurse then tells patients to isolate themselves until results come back. The clinic even offers documents to explain that to employers. The samples are sent off to the nearby Labcorp facility. Yung says because they don’t rely on the state for the tests, they may get results quicker.

"We’re now at the point where we can safely say three to four days is the vast majority of results," Yung said. "Some of them are as soon as 0ne or two days."

If the test comes back positive the health department starts contact tracing to figure out who else may have it.

Under the recently passed CARES act, tests for COVID-19 are covered by insurance. If you don’t have insurance, Yung says the test can run from $60 to $100 depending on where you get it.

Hopefully more testing soon

There are only a handful of drive-thru testing sites in northern Michigan, but there could be more soon. Yung says they have about 100 tests on hand right now and get a new shipment once per week.

"A few weeks ago even it was very hard to get our hands on even more than a day or two of testing material," Yung says.

Another bottleneck is personal protective equipment for his staff, which is in short supply, Yung says.

Now, he says the real danger is uncertainty. As it heats up, Yung says more people will travel to isolated, rural communities up north.

 

The Bellaire Family Health Center.
Credit Max Johnston / Interlochen Public Radio

"We’re ill-equipped for vast numbers of very ill patients to swamp our clinics and our hospitals. I don’t know if we’re two weeks behind, I don’t know if we're gonna see any significant surge," he says. "I fully expect we’ll see something."

When will we have more tests?

Yung says forms of quicker testing, like machines that could get results in as little as 15 minutes, aren’t FDA approved yet.

But more tests are becoming available, he says. Within the next week the staff at the health center may start using "self-tests," where the patient has a full kit they administer themselves. They hope that will also better protect the staff itself.

Yung says for the time being the best way to fight the virus is to stay home.

"By staying home and staying safe you protect others, you just have to figure out some inventive ways to stay engaged and healthy too."

The Bellaire Family Health Center's drive-thru is open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. As of Monday, May 4 Michigan had 43,950 confirmed cases of COVID-19.