Wednesday morning, the Rhode Island National Guard Joint Task Force Guardian demonstrated one of the new “drive-thru” test sites opened to help meet Governor Gina Raimondo’s goal of testing 1,000 Rhode Islanders for the novel coronavirus each day. Three centers currently exist, one each at URI, CCRI and RIC. Each has the ability to process 300 cars a day during a 6-hour testing window from 9am – 3pm daily.
All testing begins with a person’s primary healthcare provider who authorizes the test via an online portal and gives their patient an appointment date and location.
Lt. Colonel William Tuttle of the 13th Civil Support Team explained that while “not pleasant” the test “is absolutely necessary.” Tuttle described the process of the test as taking a long swab from the kit issued to the patient which is then, “pushed up in the nasal cavity almost to the back of the throat. It’s really a rapid process, it’s done in seconds. It’s just a push in, twist, pull out type of methodology.” The tests will be processed by East Side Clinical Laboratories and the results will be sent to the patient’s healthcare provider within a few days.
One hundred-fifty members of the 13th Civil Support Team (CST) are stationed across the three centers. These soldiers are not medical specialists, but have trained over the past weeks to administer the COVID-19 test. Four soldiers from the CST, in full protective gear, work in the “Hot Zone” for two-hour shifts taking the actual samples. The gear includes full Tyvek suits with hoods, shoe covers, respirators and face masks, along with three pairs of protective gloves, the top layer being changed between each test. The crew of four is assisted in donning their suits by two soldiers who are not in PPE and will not be exposed to patients or cars with open windows. At the end of each shift, the crew undergoes an even more elaborate doffing process to remove the soiled PPE without contaminating the soldiers as it comes off. Used PPE is placed in biohazard bags to be burned.
Patients who have a referral start the process by going to the designed test center at their appointed time. At the site located in Warwick, soldiers positioned at the top of East Avenue in front of the main CCRI building have a checkpoint table where they will check ID shown through the vehicle’s closed window. For the safety of all, the patient’s vehicle is to be considered a point of isolation. The person (or people) in the car should not attempt to get out of the car or roll down the windows at any time unless directed to do so by staff. Messaging and instructions will be available in English and Spanish.
Once a person is confirmed to be eligible to get the test, their car is directed by signage and by hand signals through the parking lot to one of four administrative tents. Here soldiers in uniforms, rather than hazmat suits, will confirm the referral, provide information and then place a bagged test kit under your windshield. The soldiers have been trained to leave the tent if someone were to open their car window at this time. Each bagged kit includes a long swab, a vial for the sample and a small absorbent pad that can be used if the vial breaks to provide material to be tested.
Patients, once processed through the admin tent, wait to be permitted to move to the last leg of the process. The four admin tents all feed into one final tent where the actual testing is done. It is only when a car gets to the final tent that the window is briefly rolled down, the test is administered and the patient leaves the site. The facility is designed to process one car every 2 and a half minutes with the expectation that a car will spend about 15 minutes total at the site according to Captain Richard Fisette.
While the team has been doing testing for almost a month, the drive-thru sites opened March 31. Tuesday, the Warwick site was able to service more than 230 people with appointments and turned away approximately 50 cars that had come to get the test without a referral.