Thousands of people will soon be able to drive to a nearby parking lot, swab their noses and find out within minutes if they have the coronavirus.
CVS Health and Walgreens each opened one drive-thru testing location last month — but they're now expanding the number of sites and opening them to the general public. Their first drive-thrus were restricted to first responders.
Walgreens plans to open 15 more testing sites across seven states, starting this week. CVS opened up two new drive-thrus on Monday: one in Atlanta and one near Providence, Rhode Island. It also relocated its Massachusetts drive-thru to a site in Lowell that has capacity for five lanes.
Both are also using a new tool: Abbott Laboratories' ID Now, which can deliver test results in minutes.
The U.S. has lagged behind other countries in coronavirus testing. In mid-March, the pharmacy chains were among the retailers who pledged at the White House to help expand testing sites. This will help supplement the hospitals and government-run drive-thrus that are doing testing, too.
By opening additional drive-thru locations and expediting results, CVS Health and Walgreens are trying to increase the volume of tests — a tool that's become critical as business leaders and government officials try to determine when they can loosen lockdowns.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said this week that he's exploring how the hard-hit state could reduce risk as people eventually return to the workplace.
"This is not a light switch that we can just flick one day and everything goes back to normal," he said. "We're going to have to restart that economy. ... My personal opinion: It's going to come down to how good we are with testing."
CVS Chief Medical Officer Dr. Troyen Brennan said that drive-thru testing will contribute crucial information. Armed with data, he said, sick people know to strictly self-isolate and government officials can better understand the scope of the problem and identify areas where cases are rising.
He said the setup of drive-thrus makes it easier to increase testing volume, and the new device expedites results by making it possible to run tests on-site instead of sending them to a lab.
"In a pandemic like this, that time is so valuable," he said. "This is cutting down from seven days to 15 minutes."
He said CVS is negotiating with other states, along with the federal government, to open additional drive-thru sites, and it's getting more of Abbott's rapid-testing devices.
Even as the U.S. moves beyond the "blunt part of the epidemic," Brennan said testing will remain critical and may look different.
"This testing is going to be important for the next 18 months," he said. "So, we figure, we're going to have to set up local testing centers that aren't quite this big, and we're trying to understand exactly how could we best do that."
He spoke to CNBC this week about who qualifies for a test and how the process works.
The new drive-thrus are open to the general public, but people must qualify for a test and make an appointment.
On CVS' and Walgreens' websites, people must fill out an assessment that's based on criteria from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the online form, the companies ask questions about a patient's symptoms and risk factors.
For example, the online form on CVS' website asks if the person has had a fever, cough or difficulty breathing. It screens for other health conditions, such as pregnancy, diabetes or asthma. It also asks for information about the person's living situation and profession, which could heighten risk or contribute to the spread of the virus. These questions include whether the person lives in a nursing home, is a first responder or takes care of a senior citizen.
To qualify for a test at the CVS drive-thru, the person must be 18 or older and live in the state where the test is being conducted, Brennan said. If people meet the criteria, they can make an appointment. Tests are free to those who qualify, Brennan said.
All of CVS' test sites have five lanes. Each site is expected to do up to 1,000 tests per day, Brennan said.
Each site will be staffed by about 15 to 18 CVS employees — such as nurse practitioners and pharmacists — at any given time, who will help with testing, he said. State governments are providing security staff that will help to control the flow of traffic.
When people drive up for their appointment, he said they'll check in and answer questions about their symptoms and health conditions. They'll be directed to one of five lanes. Each person will get a swab — similar in appearance to a long Q-tip — from a medical professional who's dressed in protective gear.
At CVS' first drive-thru, he said, medical professionals administered a nasal swab that went deep into the back of the nose, near the throat. With the new test, he said, patients will administer their own test by rolling around the swab in both of their nostrils to collect a specimen.
Patients hand that swab to a medical professional and drive to a parking lot area to wait for results. Results take about three to 15 minutes, Brennan said.
Staff enter whether that person was negative or positive into a computer. If people test positive, they receive a six-page packet of information, which stresses the importance of self-isolation and describes when they should seek medical care, he said.
Brennan said from check-in to results, the process usually takes about a half-hour or 35 minutes.