Coronavirus test system will rely on online screening and parking-lot sampling sites

Alan Boyle
Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, shows a flowchart for a website that would screen online visitors for COVID-19 testing, with President Donald Trump at her side. (White House via YouTube)

The Trump administration says it will set up a nationwide screening and testing system for coronavirus that relies upon online self-screening and drive-through sampling stations in store parking lots.

Lots of details about the system have yet to be fleshed out.

For example, the website that will take Americans through the screening process hasn’t yet been finished. Hundreds of parking-lot stations will have to be set up. And it could be challenging to ramp up operations, not only for test-kit production but also for other supplies and personnel.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 outbreak continues to widen. More than 2,100 confirmed cases have been identified in the U.S., including 568 in Washington state. Thirty-two of the nearly 50 U.S. deaths recorded so far have occurred in King County.

Epidemiologists say it’s likely that tens of thousands of Americans, if not hundreds of thousands, have the virus but have not been tested. They expect the death toll to rise as well.

Today’s announcement in the White House Rose Garden signals that the federal government will be making a strong push to address testing gaps that even federal officials have acknowledged.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he expected the push will contribute to a successful campaign to control the outbreak – just a day after he acknowledged that the test system was failing.

“If you want to get the kind of blanket testing and availability [so] that anybody can get it, or you could even do surveillance to find out what the penetrance is, you have to embrace the private sector,” Fauci said. “And that’s exactly what you’re seeing.”

Executives from Walmart, Target, Walgreens and CVS said they’d make space in their stores’ parking lots to establish testing facilities. LabCorp, Quest Diagnostics and Roche said they were accelerating production of coronavirus test kits.

President Donald Trump said Americans seeking a test would be directed to a screening website. “Google has 1,700 engineers working on this right now,” Trump said. “They’ve made tremendous progress.”

But in a series of tweets sent out after today’s briefing, Google Communications made clear that the website had far more limited scope than Trump suggested, and would need more time to hit full stride. The tweets also made clear that the project is being spearheaded not by Google but by Verily, a subsidiary of Google’s Alphabet holding company that focuses on biomedical applications.

“We are developing a tool to help triage individuals for Covid-19 testing. Verily is in the early stages of development, and planning to roll testing out in the Bay Area, with the hope of expanding more broadly over time,” Verily said in the statement tweeted by Google.

“We appreciate the support of government officials and industry partners and thank the Google engineers who have volunteered to be part of this effort,” Verily said.

Coronavirus Live Updates: The latest COVID-19 developments in Seattle and the world of tech

Epidemiologist Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, said visitors to the website would be guided through a series of questions about their symptoms — and if a test is indicated, they’d be directed to the appropriate testing facility.

The drive-through stations would follow a pattern that was set in South Korea for doing thousands of tests, and was later adapted by the University of Washington for testing medical personnel in Seattle. For safety’s sake, test subjects would be asked to stay in their cars.

LHC Group’s executive vice president and chief strategy and innovation officer, Bruce Greenstein, said his company would play a part in at-home coronavirus testing.

“For Americans who can’t get to a test site, or live in rural areas far away from a retail establishment, we’re here to help and partner with our hospitals and physicians, as well as the people we have here today that will be doing testing around the country,” Greenstein said.

Birx said the tests, which typically involve taking samples with nasal swabs, would be sent out to processing labs, with results reported in 24 to 36 hours.

Cost of the testing would presumably be covered at least in part by $50 billion in federal funds released by virtue of Trump’s emergency declaration. “I am officially declaring a national emergency. Two very big words,” Trump said today.

The Department of Health and Human Services will also liberalize its policies to give physicians and hospitals more flexibility when it comes to responding to the outbreak – including the increased use of telemedicine.

Several other steps were announced during the Rose Garden briefing:

  • The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will soon put nursing homes virtually off-limits to visitors and non-essential personnel. The agency’s administrator, Seema Verma, said exceptions would be made for end-of-life visitations. Most of Washington state’s coronavirus-related deaths have occurred in connection with a long-term care center in Kirkland.
  • Interest payments on federal student loans would be waived, to reduce financial hardship due to the outbreak’s effects.
  • The federal government will purchase more crude oil for the U.S. strategic petroleum reserve, a move that’s expected to shore up falling oil prices.

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