On Tuesday, March 31, the University of Rhode Island’s Plains Road parking lot became one of three COVID-19 drive-thru testing sites in Rhode Island.

The Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) and the Rhode Island National Guard are operating the three sites as testing demand reaches fever pitch across the country. The two other testing sites are located at the Community College of Rhode Island Knight Campus in Warwick and Rhode Island College in Providence. 

Captain Mark Incze, who serves on the Rhode Island National Guard’s Public Affairs Team, said that the three locations were selected due to their locations, pre-existing relationships with the National Guard and RIDOH and potential to accomodate a large number of people.

“Facilities or sites large enough to accommodate the expected traffic with the planned setup design was a critical factor,” Incze said. “Ease of travel to and from was a factor. We knew we needed sites that were dispersed in a way to evenly cover the state.”

Each of the three sites can accommodate roughly 300 patients per day, but Incze said that RIDOH and the National Guard could alter the site capacity to match demand. 

Although RIDOH  is the lead agency in these operations, according to Incze, the National Guard controls the day-to-day operations of the facilities. 

“We confirm patient data and appointment times, collect samples and transport those samples to a testing facility,” Incze said of the National Guard’s role in the operation.

According to URI’s Director of Health Services Ellen Reynolds, Health Services is no longer actively testing people for the virus themselves. Instead, they are directing individuals who could benefit from testing to the drive-thru site located on campus.

If the individual does not have a vehicle or they need additional care such as a respiratory evaluation, Health Services is still capable of doing testing and will work with individuals who need to be tested to accommodate them. 

Reynolds said that Health Services does not see any additional risk to the community posed by the test site.

“It’s being done outdoors, in the open air, [and] individuals are not getting out of their car,” said Reynolds. “It’s my understanding that these are trained professionals, but they’re not necessarily medical professionals.” 

The people conducting the testing are National Guard soldiers and airmen who have been trained to administer and collect the tests.

“There really is no increased exposure to any URI community member and they are decontaminating the area when they leave at night,” Reynolds said.

The safety of the people of Rhode Island, including the soldiers and airmen in the National Guard, is the top priority at all of the sites, according to Incze.

“The sites themselves are made safe for our service members in that the patients remain in their car for the duration of their visit,” Incze said. “Windows in their cars are only rolled down once during their visit, which is in the swabbing tent.”

The National Guard personnel in the tents at the sites also wear the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). These include face masks, face shields, gloves and Tyvek protective suits. 

Incze explained that the donning and doffing of the gear is a “highly choreographed exercise” is performed under supervision and ensures that any contamination is not passed to the service member.

Major Michael Jagoda of the URI Police Department said that, as of March 31, activity on campus was low and was not impacting their operations, but they are in contact with the National Guard in case their assistance is needed.

“The Rhode Island Air National Guard security force is on-site and we are conducting patrol checks of the areas,” said Jagoda. “We are in constant communications with [Rhode Island Air National Guard], should they need our assistance.”

Patients who wish to get tested must have an appointment, which would be set up by their primary care physician and coordinated with the Rhode Island Department of Health. If they do not have a primary care provider, they can call an urgent care center. Before going to any health care facilities, patients should call first, unless it is an emergency, according to the Rhode Island Department of Health.

“Patients without an appointment will have to be turned away for their and our service members’ safety,” said Incze.

The Rhode Island National Guard does not currently have an end date for the testing.

“The Rhode Island National Guard is prepared to continue swabbing at these sites for as long as the RI Department of Health deems it necessary to the COVID-19 pandemic response efforts,” Icnze said. 

Patients who are showing symptoms are urged to contact their physician or an urgent care center to try to schedule a test. As of today, Thursday, April 2, testing has been expanded to all symptomatic Rhode Islanders. More information can be found in this RI DOH press release or on the RI DOH website. If you are experiencing symptoms, the RI DOH is saying it is “critical” to self-isolate and limit contact with others as much as possible.

The University’s COVID-19 hotline can be reached at 401-874-3082 Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m for further questions, or you can visit the University’s COVID-19 webpage.