Two months after launch, the Spectrum Health drive-up testing site for COVID-19 keeps busy.

Each day, the specimen-collection team sees an average of 370 patients seeking to learn if they have the novel coronavirus. The patients drive up in their cars and are often on their way within minutes.

Results appear in their Spectrum Health MyChart in 24 to 48 hours.

“We are a very well-oiled machine,” said Carrissa Stalsonburg, RN, the charge nurse at the outdoor site Spectrum Health set up in Grand Rapids shortly after the pandemic was declared. “It is very impressive how many people came together to make this functional.”

When the tents opened March 13, they had heaters to keep staff and patients warm in the chilly temperatures.

Last week, they received units that can provide heat or air conditioning, so patients and medical team members stay comfortable, said Eric Wilson, a lead improvement specialist for Spectrum Health. If there is thunder or lightning, the team puts testing on hold and waits 30 minutes before resuming work.

The majority of the patients have COVID-19-related symptoms, while about 40% of the patients need tests before undergoing surgery or other medical procedures, Stalsonburg said.

Specimen collection process

To be tested, a patient first must get an appointment.

Those with symptoms of COVID-19, such as fever, coughing and shortness of breath, should call Spectrum Health’s free screening hotline at 833.734.0013. A physician or advanced practice provider will conduct the screening, and if the patient needs a test, an appointment will be scheduled.

Most appointments are scheduled within 24 hours of screening.

Outside of Grand Rapids, patients may be directed to the regional hospitals’ emergency departments for their specimen collection appointment.

Those in the Grand Rapids area are directed to the drive-up specimen collection site, 1300 Michigan St. NE, which runs 10 hours a day, seven days a week. It opens at 8:15 a.m., and the last appointment is scheduled for 6:15 p.m.

Once patients arrive and register over the phone, they are directed to one of three specimen collection tents. The specimen collection involves a nasal pharyngeal swab. The swab goes in through the nose to the point where the back of the nose meets the throat.

It takes just seconds. Most patients understand the discomfort will be over quickly, Stalsonburg said.

“I did it to myself so I would know how it felt,” she said. “It’s like when you jump in a pool and the water goes up your nose really fast.”

Helping each other

Making the tests as safe and efficient as possible for patients takes teamwork. Each day before opening, the team comes together in a quick huddle to discuss the previous day and suggestions for improvement.

“The ability to support each other is huge,” Stalsonburg said. “I am very proud to be a part of this team. I’m proud of the way we have come together to make this a functional facility.”

While all the team members wear personal protective equipment, those who collect specimens wear additional equipment—powered air-purifying respirators. These specialized hoods provide filtered air through a hose, connected to a motor that is worn at the waist.

Because the equipment can get warm, the nurses and respiratory therapists take turns with direct patient contact. One works three to four hours collecting specimens while a co-worker handles paperwork, and then they switch places.

Respiratory therapist Abbie Bergman started working at the specimen collection site in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At first, she felt some anxiety about exposure to the novel coronavirus, but her fears have eased considerably since then. Bergman said she’s comfortable with the personal protective equipment available and the team’s shared commitment to protecting themselves and patients.

“I feel really safe in the tent,” she said. “Everyone keeps each other accountable. I feel like everyone wants everyone else to be safe.”

In addition to wearing protective equipment at work, she takes an extra safety step to protect her family. As soon as she gets home, she changes clothes and puts her scrubs in the wash.

And she takes pride in her ability to help care for patients during the pandemic.

“I think we are helping out the community and helping people to get procedures done,” she said.