Since the COVID-19 pandemic reached Alabama in March, hundreds—sometimes thousands—of people have pulled their cars into a downtown Birmingham parking lot each week and rolled down their windows to be tested for the novel coronavirus. The drive-through testing site, which was set up by UAB and sponsored in partnership with the Jefferson County Department of Health as a response to the pandemic, has been open seven days a week and staffed with more than 100 volunteers a day.

drive-through testing sitePhoto: Andrea MabryBut the university has had help keeping the site running—and in increasing testing throughout the community: Hyundai Hope On Wheels® (HHOW) and Hyundai Motor America gave a $200,000 grant in April to help UAB expand testing and increase focus on pediatric patients. Now, more than 37,000 people have been tested throughout the community—about 10 percent of which have been minors, says Jordan DeMoss, vice president of clinical operations at UAB Medicine.

The grant helped UAB achieve three critical goals in the community, DeMoss explains. The first was to make community testing available as quickly as possible to help diagnose the disease. The second was to provide pre-procedure testing for patients of Children’s of Alabama who need safe and timely care during the pandemic. And the third was to expand mobile testing sites into underserved communities—where people may not have a car to drive to the downtown site.

“The HHOW grant provided us very critical resources at a time when we needed them most and has enabled us to expand our testing beyond our drive-through site to reach communities where they are—in their own neighborhoods,” he says.

COVID-19 testing on-the-go

A drive-through site is a safe and efficient approach to testing for the virus, DeMoss notes. At UAB’s testing site, up to 550 people can be tested in two-and-a-half hours using the drive-through model.

“The vehicle serves as a natural barrier for the safety of both the staff and the person tested. It also saves the time of people having to park and walk into a site and queue up—the latter of which helps from a social distancing perspective. It also helps people who have functional disabilities and may find it difficult to navigate if they had to walk up to a site.”  

Hyundai’s focus on supporting drive-through testing sites in the fight against COVID-19 was intentional, explains Zafar Brooks, executive director of HHOW.

“Hyundai is a Korean-based international automotive company,” he says. “South Korea is broadly credited as one of the countries to best manage the COVID-19 novel coronavirus pandemic. We learned the best practice that contributed to their successful results was drive-through testing. This allows the patients an efficient and safe way to get the care they need while protecting the caregivers as they see patients. We believe testing is the first line of defense in the fight against COVID-19.”

In August, the downtown site moved from its original location to UAB Hospital-Highlands. And it likely won't be going away any time soon.

“We will continue to have some form of a testing site until the pandemic is under control and there is no longer a need for high-volume COVID-19 testing,” DeMoss emphasizes. “Based on innovation and advancement in testing modalities, such as a reliable widely available rapid test that would come on the market, we may augment how the testing site functions.”

Caring for pediatric patients

HHOW is Hyundai’s nonprofit effort to end pediatric cancer, and they have long provided support to the Alabama Center for Childhood Cancers and Blood Disorders at Children’s of Alabama, says Girish Dhall, M.D., director of the Alabama Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s of Alabama and director of UAB’s Division of Pediatric Hematology-Oncology, and Blood & Marrow Transplantation.

“This is an unprecedented time, and Hyundai’s response strongly underscores the commitment the company has to the communities in which they operate,” says Dhall.

It was Hyundai’s intention to honor that commitment, adds Brooks.

“When the COVID-19 novel coronavirus hit the U.S., we knew that kids with cancer are at higher risk for the coronavirus because of their compromised immune systems,” he says. “We reached out to our hospital partner institutions and offered to help with drive-through testing as a way to help families get the care they need and to provide urgent resources to the hospitals to meet the crisis.”

The grant is also supporting the pre-procedure testing for pediatric patients who need timely care, DeMoss says. If a young patient is undergoing a procedure that is aerosol-generating or provides a high risk for aerosol generation, he or she will need to be tested beforehand, if time permits. Examples of aerosol-generating procedures include endotracheal intubation and extubation, bronchoscopy, and sputum induction, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“These procedures are at high risk for transmission of COVID-19, and therefore, knowing the COVID-19 status of the patient is critical to keeping healthcare workers and patients safe,” DeMoss says.

Reaching out to the community

Twice a week, UAB Medicine and the UAB Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Center set up mobile testing sites in underserved neighborhoods throughout Jefferson County. The goal is to provide testing to those who might not be able to make it to the downtown location, DeMoss says.

“We partner with faith-based and community organizations in local neighborhoods for sites that are well-known in the communities and that support engaging local citizens,” he explains.

Depending on the site available and its space, UAB may set up another drive-through location or provide a walk-up testing area. UAB also offers on-site Spanish interpreters at mobile sites—and the university is partnering with local Hispanic interest organizations to further engage the Latino community, DeMoss adds.

So far 900 people have been tested through mobile sites. “By taking testing into local communities, UAB aims to eliminate barriers to accessible COVID-19 testing,” he says. “We are grateful for the generosity of Hyundai Hope on Wheels and the difference it has made in our community.”