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Coronavirus Update: Drive-Through Testing And Other Developments


In the latest attempt to combat coronavirus, the president declared a national emergency and the House passed a relief bill early this morning. That's just the start of robust government action after weeks of what was widely viewed as a slow response. There are other moves afoot to help Americans deal with potential exposure to the coronavirus, including drive-up testing.

NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us with more details. Good morning.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: And over the last couple of weeks, Rob, the administration got a ton of criticism for there not being enough test kits available. Now there's lots of focus on testing. Tell us more about the fixes they've announced.

STEIN: Yeah. So the administration says it's planning to provide free drive-through coronavirus testing around the country. Target, Walgreens, Walmart and CVS are providing space in their parking lots for the testing. And officials say a website will help people determine whether they should get tested and where. Here's how Vice President Mike Pence described it.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: You type in your symptoms and be given direction whether or not a test is indicated. And then at the same website, you'll be directed to one of these incredible companies that are going to give a little bit of their parking lot so that people can come by and do a drive-by test.

STEIN: Now, the locations are supposed to be announced as soon as Sunday night, but I should mention that there are a lot of questions about this. You know, who would staff these testing sites? And officials said the website is being created by Google, but another division of Google's parent company says it's only in the early stages of creating a much more limited site.

MONTAGNE: OK, so not fully baked rollout that we're talking about here. Did they announce anything else about that testing?

STEIN: Yeah, so they also announced several other steps aimed at making testing more available. For example, the Food and Drug Administration has approved two new tests, including a high-volume automated test designed to quickly test many samples a day, produce results within hours instead of days.

MONTAGNE: The administration says it's also helping doctors and hospitals care for people. In exactly what ways?

STEIN: So the administration ordered hospitals to activate their emergency preparedness plans and is relaxing federal rules to give hospitals and doctors more flexibility to do things like, you know, make it easier for doctors to provide care to patients remotely through telemedicine and to help hospitals make sure they have enough beds and staff available to handle a big increase in patients if that becomes necessary.

They also took steps to protect nursing homes, including barring most visitors. Here's how Seema Verma of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services explained the decision.


SEEMA VERMA: We fully appreciate that this measure represents a severe trial for residents of nursing homes and those who love them, but we are doing what we must to protect our vulnerable elderly.

MONTAGNE: Rob, how helpful do you think all these new measures will prove to be?

STEIN: You know, if this really happens quickly and more people do get tested, it would help. You know, without a lot of testing, the public health response is essentially flying blind. And beefing up the health care system is really crucial, so public health experts would welcome all this. They just wish the administration had done this sort of thing weeks ago when the country had a better chance of getting ahead of the virus.

And none of this, unfortunately, is going to avoid the need for the massive shutdowns that we're seeing right now, which are really trying to slow the spread of the virus to keep the health system from getting overwhelmed and be able to save lives.

MONTAGNE: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein, thanks very much.

STEIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.