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‘We won’t turn people away’: Drive-thru COVID-19 screening in Spokane loosens criteria

Medical personnel wearing protective equipment screen people referred by doctors for COVID-19 testing, Friday, at a drive-thru testing station set up in the parking lot at the Spokane County Fair & Expo Center. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

The drive-thru COVID-19 screening site at the Spokane County Fair & Expo Center is now open to symptomatic high-risk individuals.

That includes the elderly, people with underlying health conditions, first responders and health care providers who have a fever plus a cough or shortness of breath. But the Spokane Regional Health District still wants to people to talk to their doctors about their symptoms first.

“Maybe they have symptoms to the point where they need to go to the hospital. We don’t want to make health care decisions for people,” said SRHD spokesperson Kelli Hawkins. But “We won’t turn people away.”

That doesn’t mean people who show up will be tested, though. Providers will still screen people – which is a free service – for symptoms and ask about travel history and potential contacts with people confirmed to have COVID-19. The process from screening to collecting samples takes about 20 minutes.

The sampling process involves swabbing a person’s throat and nose and collecting a saliva sample, according to the state health department. Those samples are sent to a lab, and confirmation of results has taken as few as three days and as long as a week.

People who do not fall into a high-risk category but are experiencing symptoms similar to those of COVID-19 should stay home and isolate themselves while resting, hydrating, eating nutritious foods and practicing good hygiene, according to the health district.

The screening site in the parking lot on the north side of the fairgrounds is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day. It is equipped to see about 300 cars each day, with up to two people in each car, and staffed by providers from CHAS, Kaiser Permanente, MultiCare and Providence.

It had initially opened to first responders and health care providers Thursday, then to people with a doctor’s referral on Friday.

Of the 101 people screened Friday, providers determined 69 should be tested.

“It’s been really moderate traffic coming in, pretty slow even,” said Hawkins, which means little to no wait time for screening. “Now that we know how people are responding to the screening site, then we felt comfortable loosening the parameters a little bit.”

Hawkins said there is no charge for testing for people people without insurance but those who are insured should bring their insurance card to the screening site. The Office of Insurance Commissioner is requiring state-regulated insurers to waive copays and deductibles for COVID-19 testing, according to the state health department.

Eric Farmer, chairman of Spokane Community Organizations Active in Disaster, applauded the loosened guidelines for screening.

“Let’s get people tested if it’s warranted,” said Farmer. “We don’t know how prevalent it is in the community yet.”

“What they’re trying to do is take the burden off the emergency rooms and clinics,” Farmer said.

Earlier this week the health district was looking for 40 volunteers to fill two six-hour shifts at the COVID-19 screening site each day, potentially through April 17, according to a Facebook post from the Spokane County Republican Party.

Volunteers, who will be supplied with surgical masks, will not come in direct contact with people being screened and can sign up using an online form.