Drive-up coronavirus testing launches at former state fairgrounds in Detroit

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — The City of Detroit launched its drive-thru COVID-19 testing site at the former Michigan State Fairgrounds on Friday as the city becomes an emerging hotspot for the disease.

However, the free tests are not available to everyone. 

They are reserved for people who are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 — such as coughing, a fever of at least 100.4 degrees, sore throat and shortness of breath. They also must have a prescription from a doctor to have the test administered and make an appointment.

Workers wait for vehicles to arrive for testing in the motor vehicle lanes on the first day of testing at the new regional COVID-19 testing facility at the former Michigan State Fairgrounds site in Detroit on Friday, March 27, 2020.

Detroit's Chief Operating Officer Hakim Berry said it was vital to open the testing site to screen high-risk patients and divert traffic from hospitals. Confirmed cases rose to 851 among Detroiters on Thursday, 11 times the number recorded seven days ago. 

"Properly diagnosing people helps you to understand where you’re at. With the shortage of supplies at each one of the hospitals, we thought that having a site off-site of the hospital to test people with the right symptoms was more focused so they can get that immediate direction of care,” said Berry, adding they have received a great response from the community.

“We filled our spots for the first couple of days in a matter of hours,” he said.

► More: Detroiters face higher risk of severe outcomes in coronavirus outbreak

Patients enter through the entry checkpoint at West State Fair and follow rows of orange cones stretching a half-mile into the fairground.

Drive-up testing for COVID-19 begins at the Michigan State Fairgrounds on Friday, March 27, 2020.

Drivers will be given a mask and be asked to present their prescription with windows rolled up at the second checkpoint. At the following checkpoint, they will have their temperature taken and be asked a list of questions before heading under the wooden canopy at Joe Dumars Field House.

After drivers make it past the three checkpoints, they will be directed under the wooden canopy to one of eight tents and be swabbed for testing while remaining inside their vehicles.

With the help of more than 100 medical volunteers, city workers and Wayne County Sheriff's deputies on hand to direct traffic, the city anticipates testing 40-50 cars an hour without having lines reach Woodward Avenue.

Officials expect to test 400 to 500 people a day through May 8. 

Brad Dick, director for the city’s general services, said they were fully booked for Friday and Saturday with 325 appointments scheduled. The team started with 100 on Friday to perfect the system, he said.

"We are going to try to practice our process and estimate it’ll take 12 minutes to administer the test once people get through to the tents," he said. "It’ll take about an hour to get through and based on that estimate, we think we can do about 500 tests a day starting Monday."

The program is funded with $300,000 from the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan.

Intake personnel approach vehicles as COVID-19 testing begins at the Michigan State Fairgrounds begins on Friday, March 27, 2020.

During the announcement of the testing site Wednesday, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said a city team traveled to New Jersey and made a deal with a laboratory to test 500 samples a day from the city's drive-thru testing. Roberto Romero, chief of perinatology research for the National Institutes of Health, has been creating 6,000 test kits; staff are coming from partnering health care systems. 

The tests will be flown twice a day to the New Jersey lab and could take between two to seven days for results.

Duggan said he drove by the site Friday, where the process is going so well, they're ramping up testing to 400 on Saturday.

"There are a number of slots that have opened for (Friday) in the last hour as we've seen just how smoothly things have gone," he said. "... It has gone beautifully."

Medical tents are prepared for the first day of testing at the new regional COVID-19 testing facility at the former Michigan State Fairgrounds site in Detroit on Friday.

A call center has been set up by Dan Gilbert through Quicken Loans and Rock Connections at (313) 230-0505 to schedule drive-thru appointments, which are expected to take an hour. Appointments can be made from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Officials said they realize people may come without a prescription, and if so, they will be given a paper on how to schedule an appointment and which urgent care facilities to visit before being escorted out by police.

"Even if you can’t get a hold of your doctor, most urgent cares are writing prescriptions," Dick said. "You have to be evaluated, whether that’s telephonic or in-person. Only people with essential needs should be tested."

Crews spent 10 days preparing the site, which needed rewiring, heating, and cleaning, officials said. Dick said he and Duggan chose the former state fairgrounds because it’s well-known and has 140 acres of free space for their large-scale project.

"This is not just for Detroiters, this is regional testing and we thought this made a lot of sense geographically and structurally," Dick said. "This canopy provides great protection and keeps us safe from whatever type of weather it is."

Duggan said Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel will coordinate efforts with their respective county health directors, and as the Detroit lab expands, Duggan expects the three counties will open their own testing sites.

As more Metro Detroit hospitals reach capacity from a surge of COVID-19 cases, the city and governor are identifying large sites that can be converted to accommodate hospital beds.

"Could we someday see the TCF Center, or the Pistons practice facility or Marygrove (College) dorms turned into hospital bed centers? Those are all things the governor is appropriately exploring not just in Detroit, but around the state," Duggan said Wednesday.

Medical tents are set up for the first day of testing at the new regional COVID-19 testing facility at the former Michigan State Fairgrounds site in Detroit on Friday, March 27, 2020.

As of Friday afternoon, Detroit's health department had recorded 1,075 cases and 23 deaths in the city from COVID-19, an increase from 551 confirmed cases and eight deaths as of Tuesday, health officials said.

Among the deaths are a Detroit police civilian dispatcher, homicide Capt. Jonathan Parnell, 50, and entrepreneur Marlowe Stoudamire, 43. 

► More: This is what Detroit looks like under the coronavirus quarantine

The drive-thru operation was announced after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered residents to shelter-in-place until April 13 as the disease rapidly spread. The growth rate in Detroit outpaces the rest of the state, where 3,657 cumulative cases through Friday were more than six times those recorded a week ago.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_