As demand for coronavirus testing grows, Walmart and Walgreens will soon open drive-through sites for first responders

Key Points
  • Only one retailer, CVS, has opened a drive-through coronavirus testing site so far, but it is limited to only first responders who are referred by government and public health officials.
  • Walmart and Walgreens said they plan to open test sites in the Chicago area in the next few days.
  • Walmart's Executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs Dan Bartlett said the retailer has struggled to get test kits and find masks, gloves and other personal protective gear for workers.
Cape Cod Healthcare nurses conduct drive-through coronavirus testing from a tent in the parking lot of Cape Cod Community College on March 17, 2020 in West Barnstable, MA.
John Tlumacki | Boston Globe | Getty Images

A week after leaders of Walmart, Target, CVS Health and Walgreens pledged to set up coronavirus testing in their parking lots, the public is still waiting for their widespread availability.

Only one of the companies — CVS — has opened a testing site so far. The company opened its first drive-through test site Thursday afternoon in Massachusetts, but it is limited to police, firefighters, nurses and other first responders who are referred by government or public health officials.

In the next few days, Walmart said it will open two sites and Walgreens said it will open one site in the Chicago area. Target has not yet announced any detailed plans.

None of the four companies have said when or where they'll add more test sites — and when the drive-through locations will welcome the general public.

The slow ramp-up of sites has underscored concerns voiced by health-care systems and criticisms by politicians about personal protective gear shortages and challenges of reaching cities and towns across the U.S. as the coronavirus spreads.There are no proven treatments or vaccines for the coronavirus, but medical professionals say testing can help contain the pandemic by encouraging people to self-quarantine and closely monitor their condition so they can seek hospital care, if necessary.

Last week, one of the key advisors to President Donald Trump on the coronavirus — Dr. Anthony Fauci — said the U.S. can't process tests as quickly and easily as other countries and called it "a failing." Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, made the comments in testimony to a House committee about the country's level of preparedness.

"The idea of anybody getting it 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 told the committee.

A day after Fauci testified, Trump met with the country's major retailers and health care companies to enlist the private sector's help.

Walmart and CVS said they have run into obstacles, even as they've rushed to open sites. Walmart's Executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs Dan Bartlett attributed the delay to supply issues. He said it has struggled to get test kits and find masks, gloves and other personal protective gear for workers. He said it's taken time to coordinate with state and federal officials who will do the testing, too.

Once the Chicago area sites open and act as pilots, he said Walmart wants to help fill in gaps where there's not enough testing — such as in rural areas. He said its pharmacists and pharmacist techs may be trained to do the tests.

The World Health Organization has issued dire warnings about shortages of personal protective equipment as health workers and the general public have bought medical masks, gloves, goggles and gowns. In early March, WHO said it had shipped nearly half a million sets of personal protective equipment to 47 countries. It said it would need far more, though, as the pandemic spreads.

Based on its modeling, WHO said an estimated 89 million medical masks and 76 million examination gloves would be required each month to respond to COVID-19. It called for a 40% increase in manufacturing and for government officials to incentivize more production.

On Friday, Trump invoked the Defense Production Act, a Korean War-era statute that can force American companies to manufacture items in short supply — such as ventilators and masks.

At a White House press conference on Friday, Vice President Mike Pence said the country is "continuing to make steady progress on testing" and manufacturing of supplies. He said the Federal Emergency Management Agency would provide an update about testing Saturday and said state-based testing efforts are "literally expanding by the hour."

At the CVS site, the company's own nurse practitioners and pharmacists are doing the testing. CVS spokesman Joe Goode said the company has adequate protective gear, but said it's been complex to launch a drive-through site that's first-of-its-kind for CVS. For example, he said, the company thought through and ultimately decided to shut the nearby store. 

"There were a lot of operational challenges," he said. "We wanted to make sure that we staged this testing site properly. We worked with local officials. There are a lot of things to consider operationally to make sure that the site was truly ready for patients."

Goode said the company is using the site as a pilot, so it can then scale. 

Walgreens said in a company statement that its first site will open over the weekend in the parking lot of a Chicago area store. It be staffed by government health care workers. The company said the site will initially only test first responders, then go on to serve older people and those with underlying conditions in the coming days. 

The company said it's "proud to be playing an instrumental role in this public-private partnership, and to do everything we can to help ensure the health and well-being of Americans during the pandemic."

"Access to testing is critical," it added.

-- CNBC's Courtney Reagan contributed to this story.

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