Verily's Drive-Thru Coronavirus Testing Site: A First-Hand Account

Medical workers at the Kaiser Permanente French Campus test patients for the novel coronavirus at a drive-thru testing facility in San Francisco on March. 13, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

As federal and state leadership take heat for the lack of COVID-19 testing, a few initiatives have cropped up in the Bay Area with the goal of understanding just how many people have the novel coronavirus. Details of these programs vary: You may be screened for a visit online or over the phone. Other details, like whether the tests are covered by insurance, or if there's a charge at all, remain unclear.

Here’s what we know so far. We’ll update this post with additional information on testing as we learn more.

The Verily Test: Online and Then at a Secret Location

Christopher Korp, a teacher in Pacifica, went through one of the processes. On March 17, he decided to take an online screener by Verily, the life sciences subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet, to see whether he might be at risk after spending time in the classroom.

The free testing program, which is directed by the state and supported by federal funds, made headlines a few weeks ago when it debuted. Verily’s Project Baseline, which specializes in user-friendly clinical research, is the interface users interact with.

Korp’s results showed he wasn’t eligible to be tested. But his 78-year-old mother with a deep, persistent cough did qualify when she took the test. She received an email directing her to a testing site that she was told to keep secret.

Korp drove his mom to a gated facility in San Mateo County. Afterward, he wrote up his experience, “for posterity’s sake and to prepare you all for what this process is like—so you are not startled when and if you go for your own testing.” The excerpt below has been edited for length and clarity.

We were previously warned by someone at Project Baseline that we would be remaining in our car for the duration of the testing protocol and that we are to keep our windows closed unless otherwise instructed.

When we finally found the entrance, there were several masked security guards monitoring the closed outer gate to the facility. There were large signs imploring that we keep our windows closed. Once my mom held up the Project Baseline paperwork she had printed from an email, the masked men smiled with their eyes, opened the gate, and waved us through to the next checkpoint. Those smiles were the last we would see for the remainder of this process.

The next checkpoint was about 100 yards away. Here, the people were dressed in more protective clothing than the previous bunch. This was also where we saw an additional rule posted beyond the warning to keep our windows up — it warned us to not take any photos. We slowly rolled up to their checkpoint and stopped at their command. I pointed to my mother in the passenger seat so they would know who to approach. One of this team’s members approached my mom’s window and asked her to press her paperwork and driver’s license to the window for inspection. After they matched my mother’s name to their list, they placed a wad of paperwork under my passenger side windshield wiper and we were permitted to proceed by waving us onward to checkpoint #3.

At this point, we have yet to see another car. We appeared to be the only people here besides the medical and security personnel at this giant facility. It was super eerie.

We rolled cautiously to the next checkpoint. People were wearing even more protective gear and holding large signs telling us to stop our vehicle once we inched into the designated space.

Here, the eyes of the healthcare workers looked serious above their masks. After checking our paperwork under the wiper, they pressed a series of printed papers to my mom’s window. These documents were hard for my mother to read even after she donned her reading glasses. They wanted her to confirm her identity, and she did the best she could. The healthcare worker inspecting my mom’s paperwork was shouting her identity information to a person in a guard shack who appeared with another paperwork bundle to be placed under my windshield wiper. This was our longest stop thus far, and I had not initially noticed the large and seemingly empty warehouse we were about to enter.

When the person inside gave the “OK” sign, we slowly drove inside the facility and were directed into stall “C.” There were no other people in the warehouse besides the healthcare workers at this time—which made the careful stall selection seem comedic.

We pulled into the stall and they told me to shut off my engine. Signs everywhere told us to leave our windows rolled up. When I reached for my phone to read my messages, one of the healthcare workers screamed, “No Photos!” I placed my phone back on its mount. Now the same checks of paperwork began again. Then the worker in a full containment suit approached with the swab in a vial. She asked mom to roll down her window. The healthcare worker then asked my mom to lean her head back as she shoved the entire 5” swap up her nose to the very back of the nasal passage. All the while a man standing behind corrected her technique by advising her to use a different angle when collecting the sample.

Once the sample was attained, the man standing behind moved forward as I tried to ask a question and asked me to immediately roll up my window in a very stern voice. I complied. Then he approached my mother’s closed window and asked her once again to confirm that the tiny print on the side of the vial was correct. Then we were directed to drive to the end of the empty warehouse where a lone masked security guard waved us in the direction of the world outside.

As of Sunday, March 22, Korp had yet to receive the results of his mother’s test. “That’s our story of healthcare in the time of plague,” wrote Korp in his reflection. Gov. Gavin Newsom said Verily’s two sites, the other being in Santa Clara County, saw 320 people come through to be tested.

More Coronavirus Coverage

Verily says it has partnered with the California Department of Public Health and qualified health care providers, including nurses and nurse practitioners, are doing the sample collection and screening. Testing is performed by labs like Quest Diagnostics.

According to an email Verily sent to KQED, individuals who are tested receive their results through partner health care organizations, not the Verily team. The company’s spokesperson also noted that the program launched just a week ago.

The Cepheid Test: A 45-minute Turnaround

A Sunnyvale company will begin shipping a newly approved test for COVID-19 to hospitals across the country. It’s being called a "key milestone" in the response to the pandemic because this is what’s called a “point-of-care” test — meaning you can wait for results at your testing site and get them back in under an hour. Countries like South Korea have been using similar tests for weeks.

Arthur Reingold, professor of epidemiology at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health, says this new test could have a substantial impact on the path of the virus.

“Having a rapid point-of-care test, at large scale, will allow us to make better and faster decisions about who might need to be in isolation or quarantine – and who is basically able to go about their business,” he said.

However, the test will only have real impact if it’s widely available soon. So far, the U.S. has lagged behind other countries in testing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only authorized companies to develop rapid tests at the end of February, after its own tests were shown to be faulty.

“Within our current system, there is a gap between what we need government labs to be doing and what we need private sector to be doing,” Reingold says.

Cepheid says it will start shipping test kits to health care providers this week, but has not specified how many tests or how soon.

With additional reporting by Susie Neilson.

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