It was 7 a.m. and cold on a recent Wednesday in Hartford. Despite the early hour, workers from Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center were outside in a nearby parking lot, unloading medical equipment and workstation carts from a mobile unit.
The carts were rolled into a heated white tent, and boxes of hospital gloves, paperwork files and test kits were set up on a nearby table. More doctors, nurses and hospital workers started to arrive, and by 8 a.m., cars were forming a line at the hospital’s drive-through coronavirus testing site.
For Jordon Seaver, a registered nurse who specializes in infection control and prevention, it has turned an unprecedented situation into something like routine.
“This is our new normal,” she said. Her colleagues and fellow nurses stood a few yards away as they pulled on gowns, face masks, gloves and face shields.
“We do recognize fully that this drive-through process, it is very new to people,” Seaver said. “So, it is going to be slightly intimidating, you will see people with masks and face shields, but this is all in infection control measures and this is all appropriate, and ... please follow instructions when you come through, because it’s safety for everybody at this point.”
Saint Francis recently joined hospitals and other health care providers across the state that are offering drive-through testing procedures for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 illness. Public health experts say this will help identify more people who are likely infected and give a better idea of the scale of the outbreak in Connecticut.
As of Wednesday afternoon, state officials reported that 96 people had been diagnosed with the virus after getting tested (that number jumped to 159 on Thursday). An 88-year-old man who was a resident of Benchmark Senior Living in Ridgefield was the first in Connecticut to die from coronavirus, and Gov. Ned Lamont announced Thursday that two more people -- both from New Canaan -- had also died.
There initially was a limited supply of testing materials, which were provided to Connecticut by the federal government. But commercial and private laboratories have received approval to develop and process the tests.
At most places, the drive-through testing is limited to people who have a prescription or test order from an active health care provider in the community. Dr. Jessica Abrantes-Figueiredo, an infectious disease specialist at Saint Francis, said people need to call ahead to their health care providers, who will determine whether they need a test based on symptoms and possible exposure.
“And then they’re instructed to come on down to where we’re having the drive-through testing so that then we can start the process of actually testing them for COVID-19,” she said.
This week, cars started to line up one behind the other at the Saint Francis site. People were told to keep their windows rolled up as hospital workers checked their prescription orders and identifications. Workers communicated to people by writing on dry-erase boards and paper.
Cars then moved on and pulled up under a white tent, and nurses wearing protective gear asked drivers to roll down their windows. Quickly, they reached inside the car to take a nasal swab sample from the patient, which would then get sent to a private laboratory for processing.
“We give you a form to remind you that you do need to stay home in isolation so that you do not infect others,” said Dr. Paul Anthony, an infectious disease physician on-site, “and then your primary care physician or provider who ordered the test for you will get your results and let you know of the results.”
Hospitals aren’t the only places beginning to do this kind of testing. The Urgent Care Center of Connecticut in Bloomfield earlier this week launched its own drive-through process for COVID-19 testing.
Dr. Gilberto Ramirez, the center’s director, said he worked with the state to get supplies and partnered with a private laboratory to run the samples. He said testing needs to stay a priority in order to get accurate data on the outbreak.
“Because right now, we’re basically driving blindly,” Ramirez said.
He said it’s also a way to keep other patients safe.
“We‘re trying to avoid [exposing] more people than necessary,” Ramirez said. “That means we don’t want these people waiting in the waiting room for an hour and expose everybody else to the coronavirus.”
Patients are encouraged to call ahead with their symptoms and medical history, which will determine whether they are eligible for a test at the center.
Ramirez said he knows there are people who want to get tested, even though they may have few or no symptoms, but until more supplies become available, people who are ill and have had possible exposure remain the priority.