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Opinion: Collaboration yields 'drive-to' virus testing

Bryan C. Barnhill II

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Americans to confront many challenges over the past weeks, but it has also brought with it opportunities to help one another, sometimes through innovative or unexpected collaborations.

As an employee of Ford Motor Co. and an elected member of Wayne State University’s Board of Governors, I have been fortunate to witness one such collaboration. When the pandemic hit Detroit — and it hit it hard — Wayne State, the Wayne State University Physician Group and ACCESS joined the city and others to quickly stand up sites to test first responders and health care workers. In the first several weeks, these drive-thru sites conducted nearly 3,200 tests, before consolidating their efforts with the city at the former State Fairgrounds.

Bryan C. Barnhill II

But there remained a problem. Many vulnerable Detroit residents in neighborhoods across the city and in homeless shelters did not have access to tests, or the means to get to these sites. The majority of these citizens are African American, a population more vulnerable to COVID-19 infection and its unfortunate consequences due to long-standing disparities in health and health care.

The answer? Bring testing to them. Drive it to them in Ford vehicles converted to accommodate medical personnel and testing equipment. Instead of “drive-thru” testing, my colleagues teamed up to create “drive-to” testing, which launched on April 13. Initially, that testing was just for health care workers and first responders but has now expanded to include all Detroiters. Even those without symptoms can get tested with a nasal swab for the virus as well as have their blood drawn to test for antibodies. As we look at reopening the economy, this is critical. 

Ford’s in-house incubator, Ford X, provides the vehicles along with support from the Lincoln Personal Driver pilot service, and outfits them with power, Wi-Fi, refrigeration and the lab equipment needed to support mobile testing. With generous support from the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan/DMC Foundation, the United Way, the Community Organized Relief Effort, the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, the Michigan Sheriffs Association, and the Michigan Fire Chiefs Association, medical professionals from WSU, WSUPG and ACCESS are able to provide this COVID-19 testing free of charge to all, no prescription required. 

The program expects to test as many as 400 people a day every day for the next six to eight weeks.

As of May 3, Michigan drive-to and drive-thru testing sites screened 4,772 unique patients. Of those patients, 28% (1,328) were Detroit residents.

Americans have a history of solving daunting problems, often in ingenious ways. This is not the first time industry, and car companies in particular, have stepped up to do battle against a formidable enemy.

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.

Ford was a key player in the Arsenal of Democracy that defeated the forces of fascism in World War II. Now we are making medical equipment and bringing much-needed testing to remote locations. Research universities, and WSU in particular, have long been leaders in the battle against disease and the social determinants that contribute so greatly to the glaring disparities we see today. Now its faculty are on the front lines, bringing testing to the populations that needs it most, and working tirelessly to reduce the devastation this pandemic has wrought on our community. It makes perfect sense that we join forces in the fight against COVID-19.

This time the battlefield is right here, in Detroit. As a native Detroiter, a Ford employee and a member of WSU’s board, I couldn’t be prouder.

Bryan C. Barnhill II is an employee of Ford Motor Company, and a member of Wayne State University’s Board of Governors.