COVID-19 Drive-Thru Testing Center to Close

It’s quiet. Eerily quiet.

David Topper, a registered nurse, is donned in full personal-protective equipment. He stands at a small cart setup with a computer, in the middle of what was once a parking lot now turned into a drive-thru center for COVID-19 testing and waits for the first car.

It’s March 2020. A deadly, largely-unknown virus is rapidly spreading across the globe, and the first case has just been reported in Maryland.

Topper went on to conduct the first of what would become hundreds of thousands of tests administered at Meritus Health’s COVID-19 Drive-Thru Screening Center on Crayton Boulevard in Hagerstown, Maryland.

When the testing centered opened, COVID-19 had not yet spread to Washington County. However, leadership teams at Meritus, western Maryland’s largest health care provider, were preparing to prevent community spread and learning how their teams could support patients if they needed care.

Drive Thru

The plan consisted of a drive-thru testing center to provide frictionless access to testing and reduce the spread of COVID-19, and the construction of a dedicated hospital wing to care for COVID-19 patients. And to save as many lives as they could, with prevention, information and treatment if need.

“We were all working 12-hour days, 6-to-7 days a week to get the drive-thru up and running,” Topper said. “It was exhausting, but we all knew we needed to do this to help our community.”

By May 2020, Meritus was able to obtain enough testing supplies and resources without the assistance of a third-party vendor to open up testing to any patient who wanted one.

“No one needed an order to come. The reason we were able to do that is because our providers were on-site,” said Chief Operating Officer, Dr. Carrie Adams.

This pivotal change provided one large component for decreasing community spread -- turnaround time for test results decreased from 10 days to 24-hours.

“The patient would have results sooner. This meant they could get treated faster, contact-tracing would be performed with better accuracy and the community as a whole would benefit,” Adams said.

It also meant lives would be saved.

From March 2020 until March 2022, approximately 200,000 testswere conducted at the drive-thru site. The site, and more specifically, the accompanying line of cars, become a visual representation for how COVID-19 was impacting the local community at various times of the pandemic.

“In the winter of 2021, many patients waited in a long line… Sometimes up to 3-4 hours for a test,” said Amy Kimberlin, who works as a greeter at the site.

COVID-19 surges were difficult. However, for some team members, what they remember the most is the impact the community had on them during those challenging months.

“It was an exhausting week at the drive-thru, during our high-volume days… It was a patient’s turn to be tested, but she caught me off guard when the first thing she wanted to know was how I was doing,” said Darla Haberlein, a LPN and supervisor at the drive-thru.

“Without hesitation, she handed me her service dog through the car window. Even though it was probably only a minute or two, it felt like so much longer as I stood there teary-eyed, loving on that dog,” Haberlein said.Drive thur

Turning the corner into 2022, it felt bleak. By the first week of the new year, Maryland’s Governor Larry Hogan has declared a State of Emergency, allowing for the Maryland National Guard to be mobilized.

In February, Maryland had surpassed more than 1 million COVID-19 cases.

Members of the national guard were deployed to Meritus. The additional bodies meant the frictionless access to testing could run more smoothly.

And it did, saving lives in the process.

Within weeks, things began to change. Case numbers dropped. Meritus leaders took the testing numbers and community spread data and made the determination that visitor restrictions could be lifted at the hospital. This marked a major turn in the pandemic.

“For those on the front lines, some degree of forgetting is necessary in order to emotionally move forward from the pandemic. However, history will not forget the contribution of our teams to the local families and their loved ones,” President and CEO of Meritus, Dr. Maulik Joshi said.

Nearly two years to the day since its construction, Meritus Health is evolving its testing strategies to fit the current community needs.

With low positivity rates and the most recent surge behind them, teams plan to move the resources from the drive-thru to offer areas of need. However, the infrastructure can easily be redeployed if positivity rates or community need rise.

For now, it’s an encouraging step out of perhaps the worst chapters of the COVID-19 pandemic. As Meritus teams look forward to healthier days for the community they care for, they continue to remember the stories of patients waiting hours in their cars, nervous they were going to test positive.

The memories of nurses and staff outside in the extreme heat or frigid cold for hours on end, putting themselves on the line to keep their community safe.

For many, some degree of emotional forgetting may be a natural part of moving forward, but for Washington County, the story of COVID-19 cannot be told without this important piece of local history and the efforts of Meritus to help the community survive.

Teams at Meritus are taking their memories with them as the chapter on drive-thru testing ends. However, they remain ready to redeploy at a moment’s notice.