Drive-thru test center opens; practice ahead of potential surge in COVID cases

The Missoula City-County Health Department launched a drive-thru testing facility at the county fairgrounds ahead of a potential surge in cases expected in the coming weeks. The center opened on Tuesday, April 7, 2020. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Clad in hospital gowns and protective masks, local healthcare workers opened Missoula’s drive-thru test center on Tuesday and began screening patients for the COVID-19 virus.

The Missoula City-County Health Department launched the facility ahead of a potential surge in cases expected in the coming weeks. A new shipment of supplies should arrive soon, enabling healthcare workers to test more people.

“We just know there could be a time where we’ll need to be able to test a lot of people so we can get a better idea of just how many people in our community have contracted the disease,” said Cindy Farr. “If we start while we’re pretty early in this pandemic, then we’ll be very prepared and have a lot of experience doing this when we get to the point where we have a lot of people being tested.”

Farr, who is leading the pandemic response for the local health department, said the facility will spend the next few days testing around 20 patients per day. That figure is expected to increase as new supplies become available, which they haven’t yet.

Set up at the Missoula County Fairgrounds, the test station resembled a factory line. Patients check in at the gate, which is staffed by a police officer and other healthcare workers. A team of nurses wait at the first station, followed by a team at the second station. It’s there where patient conducts his or her own nasal swab under the guidance of healthcare workers.

As of Tuesday morning, 24 cases of the virus have been confirmed in Missoula, along with one fatality.

“There’s been a lot of models trying to predict when we’ll peak,” said Farr. “I’ve seen everything from next week into the third week of June. It’s all based on human behavior, which is one of the most unpredictable things.”

That unpredictability prompted Missoula Mayor John Engen to urge area youth to use “courtesy and common sense” when out recreating. City staff have fielded complaints in recent days about youth crowding the skateboard park or playing pick-up basketball games.

Aside from isolated events, city officials and local healthcare workers have been pleased with the public’s response to the pandemic and the flurry of directives that have come with it, from closing down businesses to shutting down schools.

The success of social distancing guidelines could determine when Missoula sees the pandemic peak. New York is expected to peak this week, and Seattle next week.

Healthcare workers prepare to meet suspected COVID-19 patients at the drive-thru test center set up at the Missoula County Fairgrounds by the City-County Health Department. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“Each individual area is going to have its own peaking time, and it’s all dependent on how much community spread you have,” said Farr. “Right now, we have community spread, but it’s still pretty limited.”

Of the city’s 24 confirmed cases of the virus, Farr said around six cases resulted from community spread. The remaining cases came from travel early in the pandemic or contact with a confirmed case.

“As we see community spread increasing, that’ll be more predictive of when we’ll peak,” said Farr. “We want to make sure we’re prepared, so we’re ordering things early so we have everything on hand when we get to that point.”

Health officials and state leaders have lamented the lack of materials needed to test more people, and they’ve long suspected the virus has infected more than has actually been confirmed. How many more Farr couldn’t say.

However, she said health officials are looking at the days to come, and the drive-thru test center will help them prepare for any potential spike.

“As we get more testing supplies, we can bring up to three teams to test all at the same time,” she said. “I don’t expect that’s going to happen in the next week, but at some time, we should be able to get enough tests in.”