July 7, 2020

Blanca Perez, in her yellow medical gown and mask, approached a green sedan and greeted the driver in Spanish. She welcomed him to the East County Health Center’s COVID-19 drive-through testing site. As his car idled, she asked him to confirm his name and date of birth, and confirmed he was scheduled for testing that morning.

COVID-19 drive-through testing team, from left to right: Laura Rodriguez, Blanca Perez, Nick Tipton, Erin Higgins, Katie Hogan, Keri Barnett, Claire Contreras

Nearly half the visitors through the Gresham-based site speak Spanish, Perez said. And when someone speaks a language other than English or Spanish, she dials up an interpreter to help.

The site serves people who are symptomatic or referred by contact tracers, and prioritizes immigrant and refugee residents, people of color and people who don’t have a health provider or insurance. For a limited time, the site is also seeing people who recently attended a demonstration and who don't otherwise have access to healthcare. And testing is always free.

“We’re really pleased to provide easy access to testing to our neighbors in East County, especially for those communities who bear a heavier burden for disease,” said Communicable Disease Director Kim Toevs. “We hope anyone who feels sick will come and get tested quickly.”

Perez, who normally works for the County’s Student Health Centers, helping young people access services, said she’s been glad to use her skills as a community health worker to support residents most vulnerable to COVID-19.

“It feels so rewarding,” Perez said. “It makes me feel connected.”

On a recent Monday morning, Perez was among a team of eight County staffers taking shifts at the test site, set up beneath a pair of tents on the far side of a parking lot outside the clinic. They have seen visitors every Monday and Thursday since the beginning of June.

Perez motioned the man in the green sedan to pull forward, toward a pair of nurses — double-gloved and double-gowned — who welcomed him from behind a PAPR, a ventilation system that looks like a new age space helmet.

“This test isn’t comfortable,” nurse Claire Contreras explained to the man in Spanish. “It hurts a little.”

Community Health Worker Blanca Perez and nurse Claire Contreras talking to a visitor to the covid-19 drive-through testing site.

She talked him through the process: the swab deep into his nasal cavity, the three- to five-day wait for results (labs are backlogged and sending specimens out of state), and the call he will receive from Public Health when those results come back.

She tells him the call will come from an unknown number, and that he should be sure to answer. And until you hear back, she tells him, act as if you are positive and remain home and away from others, just to be safe. 

It’s good advice. The statewide average for positive results, across thousands of tests, is about 5 percent; But this site sees a positive rate as high as 40 to 50 percent on any given day.

“It means we’re testing the right people,” said Nick Tipton, a manager at the Rockwood Health Center who offered to help oversee the operation.

The drive-through clinic is a partnership of Multnomah County’s Integrated Clinical Services and the Public Health Division. Tipton said their missions as one-and-the same.

“We’re here to serve our community, and right now the most effective way is to identify people who are affected and help them get quarantined,” Tipton said.

Tipton manages logistics while his co-lead, Nurse Keri Barnett, a manager at the Student Health Centers, leads the “swabbing” team. 

She’s one of many medical professionals, including Dr. Katie Hogan and Nurse Practitioner Erin Higgins, who turn out twice a week to tip back chins and apply long cotton swabs to nasal passages. 

That Monday’s visitors included a young girl gripping a large teddy bear, a man exposed to an ill coworker, and the family members of people who have tested positive. The procedure is uncomfortable, to be sure.

“You can feel the anxiety in the kids, so we try to help them through it, and help families understand what they need to stay safe,” Barnett said. 

After a two-hour shift, Barnett took a break. She unhooked the ventilation machine from her waist and pulled the helmet from her head. Then she stripped off two layers of gowns and gloves, and peeled back the duct tape that keeps the fabric snug. [View and download high-resolution images of staff at the drive-through site]

Barnett said she’s grateful to be part of the COVID-19 response. And after working in management, she’s been relishing a chance to directly connect with patients. 

“As manager you’re once removed from the care,” she said, “and so it’s been great to be on the front lines.”

Clinicians like Barnett will support the public health initiative through July, and then transition back into their care roles in the county’s network of primary care clinics. Nurses from the county’s Public Health Division will take over testing and continue to stand up the permanent drive-through site.

“I think it’s pretty cool we were able to support our public health partners. This has been a really unique opportunity we’ve gotten,” said Dawn Shatzel, interim primary care services director. “I want the public to know the testing site is there. The health centers are also there, and can help them get established with primary care. We’re out there to support people and keep them healthy.”

To schedule a visit to the COVID-19 drive-through testing site, call 503-988-8939.

To connect with primary care, call 503-988-5558.