The drivers slowly rolled up to the testing lanes at the VEIP facility in Forest Hill on Wednesday, but rather than getting an inspection of the emissions from their vehicles, the occupants were being tested themselves to confirm if they have COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
The facility on Robin Circle is one of three Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program stations, along with those in Glen Burnie and Charles County, that opened for COVID-19 testing Wednesday.
The sites are not open for the general public — people must make an appointment to get a test and can only do so after a health care provider determines they meet the criteria for one and issues an order for testing, according to the Maryland Department of Health.
"We are focused on testing people who really need it and by using these sites, we can allow them to be tested away from busy emergency rooms, urgent care centers and physicians’ offices,” Fran Phillips, the state’s deputy secretary of public health, said in a statement.
“People with no symptoms or who are mildly ill do not need testing," Phillips added. "Most people who get this virus can recover at home with rest, fluids and over-the-counter fever reducers.”
The process for testing, in that only patients who have been referred by a physician can get a test, is the same process used by University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health when the health system started drive-up testing in the parking lot of Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air on March 13, according to UCH spokesperson Martha Mallonee.
The Bel Air hospital is one of two in Harford County operated by UCH; Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace is the second.
Upper Chesapeake Health is operating the testing program at the Forest Hill VEIP station in partnership with the Harford County Health Department. Testing is available Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; the VEIP facility is at 1631 Robin Circle.
“We’re just so appreciative to be a part of the testing and to be partnering with Upper Chesapeake and the Maryland Department of Health,” Molly Mraz, a spokesperson for the county health department, said while at the testing facility Wednesday afternoon.
Harford County has 34 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday morning; there have not been any deaths from the disease, which can be fatal, in Harford yet, according to Mraz. There were 1,985 confirmed cases throughout Maryland as of Wednesday, she said.
Patients turned into the VEIP facility driveway where they were greeted by an Upper Chesapeake Health representative who wore a face mask as he talked with the driver. Maryland State Police troopers, who were in their patrol vehicles with the emergency lights flashing, also were on hand near the facility entrance.
Local media had been invited to observe the testing process, but patients could not talk with reporters while at the VEIP site, as state health officials had emphasized ahead of time the need to protect patient privacy in accordance with federal HIPPA laws.
The patients proceeded to the testing area where nurses with UCH’s HealthLink Community Outreach checked them in and administered the tests using nasal swabs while patients remained in their vehicles. The nurses were wearing protective gear such as face masks, gloves and gowns over their clothing.
They took off their gloves, rubbed their hands with sanitizer and put on new gloves between each test. Mallonee, who also was on site Wednesday, noted the nurses could not remove the rest of their gear while testing was happening, though.
Mallonee emphasized that patients must have approval from a physician, either in private practice or at a ChoiceOne urgent care clinic, before getting a COVID-19 test through Upper Chesapeake Health. ChoiceOne, which has clinics in Aberdeen, Fallston and Forest Hill, is part of the UCH system.
Doctors make their assessments based on each patient’s symptoms and whether they have other underlying health issues that make them more vulnerable to the novel coronavirus, plus other factors such as where they work and their travel history, according to Mallonee. COVID-19, which originated in Wuhan, China, has become a global pandemic.
The doctor then sets up the appointment for testing. The test is conducted and the sample is sent to a lab for analysis — it takes three to 10 days before results are available. The lab then sends the test results to the physician, according to Mallonee, who noted Upper Chesapeake is “really just an extension of the doctor’s office” in terms of testing.
People can visit umuch.org/veiptesting for more information about the coronavirus tests, as well as how UCH is handling the pandemic.
The county health department keeps up to date with confirmed COVID-19 cases through the National Electronic Disease Surveillance System, or NEDSS. Electronic reports from various labs are entered into NEDSS, and health department nurses check if anyone who has tested positive for the disease is a Harford County resident. The state, as well as local health officials, check NEDSS daily and update the number of cases each morning, according to Mraz.
Upper Chesapeake has implemented significant restrictions on visitation at its hospitals, the same as other hospitals in the University of Maryland Medical System and other health systems around the state and nation, plus UMMS instituted a two-week delay of elective surgeries and “routine, non-urgent” medical appointments at its facilities to help slow the spread of coronavirus.
The health system is working to facilitate communication between patients and their loved ones through multiple electronic devices while patients stay in the hospitals, Mallonee noted Wednesday.
She said the drive-up COVID-19 testing program is a way to keep people who could be infected with the disease out of the hospital.
“The real goal is to make sure everyone is safe,” Mallonee said.