03/13/2020 09:25 EDT | Updated 03/13/2020 15:04 EDT

Drive-Thru COVID-19 Testing Could Help Canada Stop Its Spread

South Korea's model is quick and effective, an epidemiologist says.

VANCOUVER — Drive-thru clinics testing people for COVID-19 in South Korea could serve as a model for Canada, where the spread of the virus is comparatively limited but increasing to the point that such early interventions could be considered, an epidemiologist says.

Stephen Hoption Cann, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s school of population and public health, said drive-thrus in the city of Goyang allow people to stay in their cars as staff in protective clothing take samples from their throats and noses.

The low-threshold testing, which is being done even if someone has a sore throat without a fever or cough, has reduced spread of the novel coronavirus and saved time waiting on test results because samples don’t have to be sent elsewhere for analysis, he said.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Medical workers receive a sample from a person at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing station in San Francisco on Thursday. The planned response took off in South Korea and has since spread to the U.K. and the U.S.

“If it’s positive they get a phone call, if it’s negative they’ll just get a text message,” Hoption Cann said, adding people who are diagnosed with the virus are placed in isolation before they can infect others.

On Thursday, Queensway Carleton Hospital in Ottawa announced they were opening a drive-thru testing clinic in front of the facility “to keep Emergency for emergencies.” 

The temporary drive-thru process was closed on Friday after a community assessment centre for COVID-19 opened at Ottawa’s Brewer Arena.

“The process had been established to help deal with the backlog of 70 patients that had been identified by Ottawa Public Health to be assessed by our Emergency Department. By moving the swabbing outside, we were able to reduce wait times significantly. It was an effective short-term measure, which the hospital could initiate again in the future should the patient volumes increase,” a news release said.

The United Kingdom and states such as Colorado and Connecticut are also opening virus-testing drive-thrus.  

Koreans have ‘efficient plan’

An outbreak of MERS — Middle East Respiratory Syndrome — in South Korean hospitals in 2015 gave the country a preparedness advantage to take more aggressive steps with the current virus, Hoption Cann said of South Korea’s actions compared with Italy and Iran, where infections have quickly spread since the virus originated in China last December.

“When this really took off in South Korea, they got their resources together and developed, I think, an efficient plan to catch people early.”

A lockdown of about 60 million people in Italy has led to widespread infection and over 800 deaths, but aggressive testing has worked in South Korea, where about 67 people have died, he said, adding the latter country has also developed an app to alert users if they’re close to a high-risk area from where COVID-19 is known to have spread. 

Compared with the SARS virus, which originated in China in late 2002 and killed an estimated 774 people worldwide after spreading to an estimated 17 countries, COVID-19′s further reach and higher death toll has required swifter action, Hoption Cann said. 

The professor suggested the use of technology be considered before the respiratory disease spreads further in Canada.

“When you’ve got a lot of community spread going on it becomes difficult to predict where the next new infections are coming from and then you’ll probably start to see more severe things happening.”

Gatherings that draw a large number of people, including sporting and cultural events, have been cancelled around the world to prevent the spread of the virus from close contact as “social distancing” becomes the norm and people make a conscious effort to refrain from shaking hands or meeting in large groups.

The Public Health Agency of Canada says the risk to the general population is low. However, for some, including Canadians aged 65 and over, those with compromised immune systems and those with pre-existing conditions, the illness can be much more severe. Among the Canadians diagnosed with the illness so far, fewer than 15 per cent have required hospitalization.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on March 13, 2020.

With files from HuffPost Canada

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