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The Rollout Of Coronavirus Testing At Retail Sites Is Happening At A Snail's Pace

As the country struggles to build enough temporary hospital beds to accommodate the surge of coronavirus-related illness, a parallel rush is on to set up sites to test for the virus.

Prime real estate for testing is under tents in large parking lots adjacent to commercial properties, including retail but also office and industrial. Yet a boom of testing sites in the parking lots of the nation's largest retailers, which tend to be centrally located in densely populated areas, hasn't materialized.

Out of a possible 30,000 sites, there were only five up and running as of this week, the Department of Health and Human Services confirmed to CNN.

New Jersey Air National Guard medics process specimens at a COVID-19 testing site at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J.

In mid-March, when President Donald Trump declared a state of emergency, the CEOs of Walmart, Walgreens, Target and CVS attended his press conference in the Rose Garden and made statements about making space available at their properties for public agencies to set up temporary coronavirus testing locations. They didn't offer a timetable or other details about the effort.

The potential is large. Many of the 30,000 sites occupied by mega-retailers are ringed by large parking lots.

As of Tuesday, the five open locations included two sites at Walmart stores in the outer edges of metro Chicago focusing on seniors, healthcare workers and first responders. There is also a site at a Walgreens in greater Chicago, a CVS in Massachusetts and a Rite Aid in Philadelphia (Rite Add was not represented at the presidential press conference).

The two Walmart sites in the Chicago area will help the company better understand the operational, public health and safety considerations associated with federal, state and local efforts to expand access to mobile testing, a Walmart spokesperson told Bisnow on Tuesday.

"We are in active conversations with several states to see how we can best support their efforts to expand drive-thru testing," the spokesperson wrote in an email. "We don’t know where the next sites will be, but we are speaking with multiple states to see how we can play a role in supporting our communities at this unprecedented time."

Walmart is also planning, in partnership with Quest Diagnostics, to open a drive-through testing site in its hometown of Bentonville, Arkansas, next week.

Target, Walgreens and CVS didn't respond to Bisnow queries. On its website, Target asserts that it is committed to offering its parking lots for coronavirus testing, but offers no details.

The need for testing is urgent, according to health authorities. The United States now tops the world for coronavirus exposure, but not for testing. As of Tuesday, more than 1.1 million Americans had been tested for exposure, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

That total is more on an absolute basis than either South Korea or Italy, two nations hard hit by the outbreak, but far fewer per capita. Even at 1.1 million, that means about 330 for every 100,000 Americans have been tested, compared with more than twice that many in either South Korea or Italy.

As the need for testing is rising, the equipment to do so is still in short supply, especially swabs to use in test kits. The test themselves have been in short supply as well, and while the Food and Drug Administration recently authorized the use of rapid coronavirus tests from various manufacturers, it will take time to roll them out, former executive director of the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists Jeff Engel told Politico.

The newly established drive-thru testing site at the The Shops at Ithaca Mall, Ithaca, N.Y.

"As more testing becomes available, retail, industrial and sporting complexes can all accommodate testing, especially their parking lots for drive-thru testing," JLL Healthcare Director of Compliance Strategies Katherine Tolomeo said. 

The advantage of drive-thru sites in larger parking lots is that they can handle large volumes of individuals who may have more mild symptoms, or no symptoms at all, to help decrease the traffic around healthcare facilities, Tolomeo said.

Parking lots used for Walmart Supercenters, SuperTargets and now-empty stadiums are designed to handle large volumes of car traffic. Also useful: paved land that is being used for nothing at all.

"We've seen vacant retail pad site locations be used for testing facilities," Transwestern Executive Managing Director-National Healthcare Advisory Services Eric Johnson said. "In some cases, vacant land has been used for this purpose as well, with tents and temporary structures beings mobilized to support additional demand in patient testing."

One example is in upstate New York, where Mason Asset Management and Namdar Realty Group have make the parking lot of The Shops at Ithaca Mall in Ithaca available to be a COVID-19 drive-thru test site at no charge. The real estate companies worked in conjunction with Cayuga Medical Center and Tompkins County officials to set up the facility.

In addition to the test center, the American Red Cross used 18K SF of vacant space at the mall for a blood drive last Thursday, at no charge to the organization. The blood donation site was in a former Planet Fitness.  

“It's our hope that by using our vacant space for these initiatives, we'll help to curb the spread of the virus in Ithaca and the surrounding area," said the mall's general manager, Gina Speno. 

Other testing sites have recently opened in mall parking lots, such as at the Quaker Bridge Mall in Lawrence, New Jersey, opened by Mercer County and area hospital systems; Northwood Centre in Tallahasse, Florida, opened by Tallahassee Memorial Healthcare and other local healthcare operations; and Bi-County Shopping Cetner in Farmingdale, New York, operated by AFC Urgent Care Farmingdale.

Testing sites are also being set up near existing clinics, or at large public facilities, such as Jacksonville’s TIAA Bank Field and Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center.

Some testing sites are popping up in unexpected places. In Maryland, the government announced the availability of drive-thru testing at three Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program facilities around the state. MedStar Health also set up a testing site at the Pauline Betz Addie Tennis Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

Testing sites are being set up by state and local agencies, and by private companies. In Long Island, ProHealth, a Riverhead urgent care clinic, set up a tent outside its office for in-car testing. In Odessa, Texas, WestTex Urgent Care has set up a similar operation.

In both cases, the testing isn't so much drive-thru as drive-up. Those who come for testing make appointments and call when they arrive. Clinic personnel then come out to collect the necessary samples. 

The speed with which testing sites are being opened is also reportedly attracting coronavirus testing scams, which usually involve bogus test kits but in at least one case, a pop-up site that may or may not be real.

In Louisville, police are investigating an organization that set up pop-up coronavirus test sites on Tuesday and Wednesday, charging $200 per test, the Courier Journal reports.