The cars snaked slowly through the parking lot, down one row, turning back and then down another.
It took many an hour or more to negotiate the slow-motion maze. Lights on State Patrol cruisers flashed. Orange cones blocked off intersections. People walking their dogs ambled by.
A driver on the street out front pulled over and shouted from her window: “Do you know what’s going on?”
Told of the situation, she frowned. “So all those people might have the coronavirus?”
Colorado on Wednesday opened its first drive-through testing site for people who may have COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The testing was conducted at tents set up outside the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s lab in east Denver.
It was available only to people who had authorization from their doctors — and that meant they had to meet a fairly narrow set of criteria designed to keep the state’s testing lab from being overwhelmed.
But when the drive-through opened at 10 a.m., a line of cars quickly formed. When the testing site closed four hours later, more than 160 people had been swabbed — roughly double the number of people the state lab can test in a day. At an afternoon news conference, Gov. Jared Polis said some samples, which were placed into sealed plastic bags printed with a biohazard symbol, would be sent to private labs for testing.
Still, he was upbeat, praising CDPHE for establishing the testing site so quickly and calling it a best practice that has worked well in other nations.
“This will give us very important data about the overall dispersal of the virus in the Denver metropolitan region,” Polis said.
It also showed how great the need is for more testing capacity, something Polis also acknowledged in his remarks.
Testing is important because it helps health officials pinpoint hotspots, plan for needed resources and order necessary containment or mitigation measures. Without testing, Colorado doesn’t know what it’s up against.
The governor has said Colorado currently has around 900 testing kits for COVID-19. He has been told by federal authorities that 1,500 more are on the way this week — giving the state a total of 2,400 kits.
But each person generally requires two tests to be run on their samples, meaning Colorado will have the capacity to test only 1,200 people with that supply. Before Wednesday, the lab had tested about 300 people for the disease.
“A proper containment effort,” Polis said, “will require thousands or tens of thousands of tests administered each day.”
State authorities have previously said the CDPHE lab can run about 160 tests a day with current personnel, but it is working to staff up and do more. Private lab companies — Polis mentioned two on Wednesday, LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics — will pick up the slack. Once the state lab runs out of capacity for the day, Polis said samples will be sent out for testing to these private labs, which can take longer to deliver a result.
UCHealth and Children’s Hospital Colorado are also working to be able to provide testing, which could come online in a week or two.
“I’m really calling on the federal government and our private-sector partners to do everything they can to exponentially scale testing as immediately as we can to help us limit the spread effectively,” Polis said.
People who were tested at the drive-through site were told they would need to wait 72 hours for an answer. They were told to stay home and avoid public transit and public places like grocery stores until they get their results.
The drive-through site will be open again on Thursday and Friday. A state Health Department spokeswoman said it’s unclear how many people might show up on those days. But the need for tests is clear.
At one point Wednesday afternoon, a man pulled up to the roadblock around the lab that kept the public from driving into the middle of the rolling public health crisis. He hopped out of his car, and shouted exasperatedly at the state troopers watching the intersection.
“I’ve got samples to drop off!” he said. “Where do I go?”
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:
CDPHE’s drive-through testing site will also be open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, March 12 and 13. Next week’s schedule will be posted later.
The lab is located at 8100 E. Lowry Blvd, Denver, CO 80230. Enter off of East Lowry Boulevard.
In order to be tested, people must have an authorization from their doctor confirming that they meet the criteria to be tested for COVID-19, and they must have a photo I.D. that matches the patient name on the doctor’s order. If there are multiple people in a car hoping to be tested, each must have an order from a doctor.
CDPHE expanded the testing criteria on Wednesday, but it is still limited mostly to people likely to have been exposed to the virus or to people most vulnerable to the disease who have a fever, cough and/or shortness of breath. The full criteria is available on the CDPHE website here.
People who don’t have a doctor’s order will be assessed by a nurse or epidemiologist to determine if they meet the testing criteria. Health insurance is not necessary to be tested, and people will be tested regardless of immigration status. Interpreters are available via telephone. The tests are free.
The tests involve a swab of a patient’s nose and another of a patient’s throat. The patient stays in their car the entire time. No restrooms are available. People are advised to plan ahead and bring any food or water they need. Wait times on Wednesday were an hour or more.
The state is currently working to open up additional testing sites, including one in the mountains, which have seen a number of cases in resort communities.For more information, visit CDPHE’s coronavirus website here, or contact the state’s CO-HELP hotline at 303-389-1687 or 1-877-462-2911 or via email at COHELP@RMPDC.org.