Lee County’s first drive-thru coronavirus COVID-19 testing center opened Monday in Auburn, testing nearly 50 patients.

The testing center opened at the old location of Health Plus Fitness Center, 1171 Gatewood Drive No. 101 in Auburn, to allow hospital staff to safely test patients away from East Alabama Medical Center.

“This will allow us to have a large circulation area where we have outdoor tents and people are sent there by appointment to test after they’ve called the 334-528-SICK number,” EAMC President Laura Grill said.

The drive-thru testing center allows for hospital staff to test patients effectively and safely, and so far things have been going smoothly, staffers said.

“Our observation has continued on both sides and so far everybody’s been safe,” Rosemary Cummings, clinical lead of the testing center, said. “They’ve felt safe. We’ve talked to all the staff all day long. We feel good; this is what we’re called to do.”

How it works

Patients must call 334-528-SICK first to be screened to see if they qualify for a coronavirus test. Once they complete the screen and have positive symptoms, they make an appointment for the drive-thru test location.

Upon arrival, patients must hold a piece of paper with their name and date of birth on it against the window for test center security to read. The security personnel will then radio the patient’s information to Cumming’s staff and they tell them whether to go to Tent 1 or Tent 2.

After that, the process becomes similar to that of a car wash.

“We’re telling them to put the car in park. Don’t roll your window down until you are told to,” Cummings explained.

Nurses are also telling the patient to turn their head to the side if they have to cough and to make sure they cough into the car and not onto the employees.

Then, a nurse who is in protective gear will prepare to take the sample.

“She approaches the car. She tells me she’s ready. I tell them to put their window down,” Cummings said.

The nurse will then explain the process to the patient and go through Alabama Department of Public Health guidelines for testing before administering the test.

“She will go ahead and do the test, which is a nasal swab that feels like you’re up getting up into the brain matter,” Cummings said.

“Kind of a ramped-up flu test is what most of the patients are saying as they’re getting it done.”

The nurse will then take the test back to another nurse who is ready with all the material that they’re using for the swab, and the nurse places the swab into that. The test is double-bagged, taken to the back and then the patient is able to go.

The tests from the drive-thru location are then sent to a private lab for testing. If a test comes back positive after 1-3 days, the patient and patient’s doctor are notified and the test is sent to the state health department for confirmation.

EAMC plans to have the testing site open for as long as it can.

“We will stand that outpost as long as we have the testing collection kits available to those people that scream out positive on the screen,” Grill said.

Local requests

Local health and government officials continue to urge residents to practice social distancing, especially the younger population.

“I’ve heard comments from young people saying that they are not worried about this because they’re young and they’ll likely survive this illness and they’re right,” Dr. Ricardo Maldonado, infectious disease specialist at EAMC, said.

“They will survive likely, but we have to understand that those young individuals who have a mild illness can still pass it to the weak and older patients that will get sick and likely overwhelm our health care system.

“This is very important.”

Maldonado stresses that residents must help ‘flatten the curve’ in order to make sure everyone gets the help they need.

“When we overwhelm our healthcare system this is going to affect every person of any age,” he said. “Please be smart, stay home.”

Auburn Mayor Ron Anders also is stressing social distancing to the younger population of Auburn, including Auburn University students who may be out celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.

“As you set your plans... we ask that you consider being in smaller groups,” Anders said.

Dr. Fred Kam, a physician at Auburn University’s medical clinic, also stressed the need for Auburn University students and other young people to stay at home instead of going out.

“I understand the need for socialization, but at this point in time, I think that’s pretty irresponsible,” Kam said. “The reality is that you could be a community spreader and that is just not very good for us at this point in time.”

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