As the United States struggles to provide testing for the coronavirus, Church of the Highlands in Alabama has made more diagnoses possible by offering one of its campuses as a drive-in testing site. WBRC FOX6 News reports that on Tuesday morning, healthcare workers were prepared to test about 500 people when 2,000 showed up.
“We’re so thankful for the volunteers from Church of the Highlands, the generosity of the people…that have made all of this possible,” said Layne Schranz, who is an associate pastor with the church, “but we’re really thankful for the medical community, Christ Health Center, and all the doctors and nurses that were actually doing the testing.”
The Church of the Highlands has over 20 campuses throughout Central Alabama and is providing the testing in Birmingham in partnership with Christ Health Center (CHC) and Assurance Scientific Laboratories. The church is also in consultation with Jefferson County Department of Public Health and authorities at local hospitals.
Church of the Highlands Helps Meet a Significant Need
Pastor Schranz gave an update on the situation at a news conference Tuesday afternoon where he was joined by Dr. Robert Record, Christ Health Center’s CEO. Record said that CHC has 18,596 patients, half of whom are uninsured, and that for weeks the center’s healthcare workers have seen patients they believed had contracted Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Yet, said Record, “As of Friday afternoon, I could not get one test for one patient.” At the same time, he and his colleagues in the medical field were aware they needed hard data to demonstrate “how present” the virus was in their community.
Record emphasized how important testing is in order to contain the virus and protect vulnerable populations. He said, “We know that if we can test people, we can identify disease, isolate people, and stop disease from spreading as fast to give us time to catch up. We can potentially prevent one of our really critical areas like a nursing home from being overrun with disease and save a lot of lives. We’re all in to do that. We want to do it the best we can for the most people we can.”
Testing for the coronavirus in the United States has so far been seriously inadequate, as Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently testified. Speaking at a House hearing, Fauci told Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida, “The idea of anybody getting [a test] easily the way people in other countries are doing it, we’re not set up for that. Do I think we should be? Yes. But we’re not.” Fauci was even more direct when he said, “The system is not really geared to what we need right now. That is a failing. Let’s admit it.”
So what led to this new testing site in Birmingham? Dr. Record said that a friend and colleague of his, Dr. Ty Thomas, had the ability to test people, but not the capability to handle the logistics of doing so. After Thomas asked for Record’s help, Record approached his pastor at Church of the Highlands, who “said ‘All in yes’ within two seconds.”
Record showed up at Church of the Highlands’ Grandview Campus Sunday morning with a team of about 15 people, and they had a drive-in testing site set up within 48 hours. The site opened for testing Tuesday, March 17, and workers were able to test an estimated 500 people, turning away over a thousand more.
Because the high volume of people who turned up caused significant traffic problems, organizers moved the testing site to the Grants Mill Campus of Church of the Highlands, which was where they conducted testing Wednesday.
What Are the Parameters for Being Tested?
People are allowed to start lining up in their cars for testing at 6:30 a.m., but no earlier, and testing begins at 9:00 a.m. There is no official end time for lining up because organizers anticipate reaching capacity before testing officially starts. This is in fact what happened Wednesday: The site ran out of its 500 tests by 8:45 a.m. At that point, the police started turning people away. Testing will resume Thursday on the same schedule.
The site is only testing people who are either manifesting symptoms of Covid-19 or who have had direct contact with someone who has contracted the virus. Record emphasized the necessity for people to be discerning about their level of need for testing.
“We need to make sure the person most in need gets the testing first,” he said. “If you’re just curious or you’ve got a tickle in your throat, you very well may have Covid-19, and we wish we had unlimited testing to get it to you. We really want people to look at themselves and say, ‘Is it important that I get this test today, or can I wait because someone needs it more than me?’”
Schranz said the organizers had learned a lot during the first day of testing and that they anticipated making their processes even more efficient in the coming days so they could evaluate as many people as possible. “I just want to thank everyone for your support and patience with us,” said the pastor. “We are trying our very best to do what we can.”