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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Drive-thru sites have been opening around the United States to make it quicker and safer to test people for the new coronavirus. However, much like the rest of the U.S. response to the pandemic, the system has been marked by inconsistencies, delays and shortages. Many who have symptoms and a doctor's order have waited hours or days for a test.
More than a week after President Donald Trump promised states and retail stores such as Walmart and CVS would open drive-thru test centers, few sites are up and running, and they're not yet open to the general public. Some states are leaving it to the private sector to open test locations; others are coordinating the effort through state health departments.
Patients have complained they had to jump through cumbersome bureaucratic hoops and wait days to get tested, then wait even longer for a result. Testing centers opened in some places only to be shut down shortly afterward because of shortages of supplies and staff. And while the drive-thru test centers that have opened are generally orderly, there have been long lines at some.
The slow ramp-up of the COVID-19 testing and the spotty nature now of the system makes it hard for public health officials to track the spread of the disease and bring it under control.
"We need to be testing more broadly to fully understand the scope of the public health situation we are facing," said Joseph Wendelken, a spokesman for the Rhode Island Department of Health.
Dr. Brett Giroir, the federal health official tasked with overseeing testing, said at a White House briefing Saturday that so far about 195,000 people have been tested in the U.S. That figure does not include some who have been tested in private labs.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.
Drive-thru test sites have popped up in locations in more than 30 states — in state parks and parking lots, next to medical centers and universities, at the Mississippi state fairgrounds and near where the Jacksonville Jaguars play. The governor of Maryland this past week ordered vehicle emission inspection programs across the state to stop so that the locations can be used as drive-thru centers to test for the virus.
However, as of Friday there were no open drive-thru tests available in Maryland's inspection centers.
The Utah health department said it isn't in charge of the sites and isn't tracking them. North Carolina's health director said the state is leaving testing to the private sector and declined to say how many sites there are. By contrast, in Rhode Island, health care organizations are running the sites in partnership with the state health department.
In Houston, cars lined up Thursday for more than a mile outside a hospital when the city's first drive-thru testing site opened. U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee said they administered fewer than 200 tests in the first six hours.
Elsewhere, at several sites visited by Associated Press journalists, the scenes were well-controlled and sometimes downright quiet.
Dozens of people waiting Wednesday in cars at a center in Homestead, Florida, waited their turn to speak with a screener wearing a gown and mask and carrying a clipboard. Some were apparently turned away. Others were waved through, had their temperatures checked and were swabbed for samples.
However, supply shortages have shut down drive-thrus in several states, including Colorado, New Mexico, Virginia, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, North Carolina and Utah. One Las Vegas site was closed because it didn't have enough workers.
New York state opened several centers to great fanfare Tuesday. By Friday, however, New York City's health department issued an alert saying only people who require hospitalization should be tested, due to shortages of protective equipment such as face masks. Drive-thru sites in New York State remain open, but only to people who meet certain criteria.
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak said he has begged the federal government for additional test kits and supplies, but the state received a notice Thursday that all of its requests for drive-thru testing pods and testing kits "are on an indefinite backlog, without any estimate of a timeline for delivery."
"This is our unfortunate reality Nevada. It's up to us," he said.
The sites themselves are dotted with tents and traffic cones. The most notable features are medical personnel wearing masks, gloves and protective smocks or other clothing. They take nose and throat swabs from people sitting in their cars or help people go inside for the test.
Some states have as few as one drive-thru site. Montana's sole site is in Billings, the state's largest city. Others have a few dozen.