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Inside the state’s first large-scale drive-through coronavirus testing facility

After a trial run Thursday, a new FEMA drive-through coronavirus testing clinic at a CVS store began administering tests to health care workers and first responders.
After a trial run Thursday, a new FEMA drive-through coronavirus testing clinic at a CVS store began administering tests to health care workers and first responders.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

SHREWSBURY — Dozens of CVS nurses, pharmacists, and technicians, and specialists from the US Public Health Service had been scurrying around a massive CVS parking lot since 5 a.m. Wednesday, erecting a series of blue tents and one circus-sized white one. They unpacked boxes of face shields, swabs, and hazardous waste bins. They practiced safely donning and removing gowns and face masks, and collecting nasal swabs from patients.

Finally, shortly after 1 p.m. Thursday, under a bone-chilling drizzle, with a videographer recording every move, the CVS parking lot became ground zero for the state’s first large-scale COVID-19 testing site for those on the front lines in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic: health care workers and first responders.

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The opening of Massachusetts’ first high capacity, drive-through testing facility on Thursday represented a significant and hopeful step in a state response that has been criticized as sluggish and insufficient. The CVS parking lot will be the first mass testing site in a state that had its first confirmed cases of the coronavirus 48 days ago.

A new FEMA drive-through coronavirus testing clinic at a CVS in Shrewsbury.
A new FEMA drive-through coronavirus testing clinic at a CVS in Shrewsbury.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The milestone coincides with the advent of new technology in commercial laboratories that should speed the testing of thousands of people a day. As of Thursday morning, state and commercial laboratories have now processed tests for more than 3,100 people for COVID-19, according to the state, a figure far below the number of tests needed to slow the spread of the virus.

“Our ultimate goal here is to protect the vulnerable, and those who protect the vulnerable,” said Captain William Pierce, of the US Public Health Service, as he strode though the lot in Shrewsbury supervising the action.

The initiative is a partnership between CVS, Governor Charlie Baker’s administration, and the federal government. CVS officials say they started talks with federal health officials last week, after the Trump administration announced that several retailers had agreed to host large testing sites.

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The safety of health care workers and first responders has taken on an urgency as the number of COVID-19 infections across the country continues at an alarming pace, and health facilities say they are burning through their supplies of protective gear for workers, placing them at high risk.

While CVS has 420 stores across Massachusetts, the Shrewsbury site was pinpointed because of the size of the parking lot and its location, right on Route 9.

The specimens collected here will be among thousands processed daily at Quest Diagnostics, 20 minutes away in Marlborough.

Quest on Thursday offered a tour of the company’s commercial laboratory to Baker and other state officials. The facility has become Quest’s site in the United States processing tests for coronavirus, according to Steve Rusckowski, the chief executive officer and president.

Quest will utilize a new test developed by Roche Diagnostics that can be run quickly on Roche’s automated machines. The technology should dramatically increase capacity for the tests, which initially had to be performed by hand.

Within the next few days, Quest will be running 20,000 tests a day nationwide, Rusckowski said. That will include 2,000 to 3,000 tests at the Marlborough lab.

“We’re making excellent progress on testing and laboratory capacity,” Rusckowski said. “We’re also working the first front-end changes. I’m proud to say that we have one of those changes happening here in Shrewsbury.”

As commercial and academic laboratories ramp up, the Baker administration cited the success of South Korea’s mass screening operation and set a benchmark of testing 3,500 people a day in Massachusetts by next week.

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“We need to get to at least 3,500 a day,” Baker said at a news conference after his tour of Quest. “But even once you get to 3,500 a day, you have a whole series of other issues you have to start to deal with and respond to.”

By 12:30 p.m. in Shrewsbury, CVS workers who volunteered to help out and had been pacing inside the store for hours, headed outside and shivered under the drizzle. Federal and CVS workers donned blue and white splash-proof gowns, goggles, face shields, and purple gloves. Yellow tape cordoned off a path from a drive-up check-in site in front of the store to the large white tent. Four-foot-long poles inside the tent were readied, so workers could push potentially contaminated materials into a bright orange "Hazardous Waste” bin.

Pierce announced that the first car would be pulling up shortly but the people inside were not infected, he assured everyone. This would be a mock test to film for officials in Washington who needed to ensure everything was conducted safely before giving the green light.

With video rolling at 1:05 p.m., a shiny white Audi, with a federal worker acting as a sick patient, pulled up to the first blue tent. He flashed a smile to the assembled crowd of volunteers watching from about 15 feet away.

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A worker, swathed in protective gear, wrote down information on a clipboard and directed the car to the large tent. There, a team of four more workers, all covered from head to toe, surrounded the car, and when Pierce gave the signal, one reached into the window and took a nasal swab of the mock patient.

At 1:20 p.m., 15 minutes from when the car first pulled up, the test was completed. The car rolled out, and the mock patient, now wearing a face mask, flashed a peace sign to the assembled crowd outside the tent.

The site aims to complete at least 12 cars per hour, to start. But there were some issues, Pierce said, to iron out before Washington would sign off, especially given the windy conditions potentially blowing around bright orange cones and protective gear inside a tent that is open on both ends.

“I’ve corrected for wind,” Pierce said, an hour after the test, as he paced and waited word from Washington.

“The cones blowing around could be a contamination issue,” he said.

By 2:45 p.m., three out of the required four top officials in Washington had given the go-ahead for testing to start. The first three patients, all Shrewsbury firefighters, were sitting in a car nearby, waiting for word.

Pierce kept pacing.

Finally, at 3:05 p.m., the call came from Washington. Green light. And the Shrewsbury site was good to go.

The testing was about to begin.


Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar. Andrew Ryan can be reached at andrew.ryan@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.