AUSTIN (KXAN) — People looking to get tested for COVID-19 in the Austin area are able to get testing at some locations at no cost.
But they may have to pay a charge for a doctor evaluation that will ultimately get refunded.
The two main available sites to do drive-through testing in the Austin area are run by Baylor, Scott & White, though the City of Austin expects to have more testing locations open in partnership with other hospital systems soon.
How the drive-through locations work
The two Baylor Scott &White drive-through locations were announced Monday: one at 425 University Blvd. in Round Rock, and another at and 5251 West US Highway 290 in Austin. A previous BSW testing site is no longer active.
You can’t just drive up to these spots and get tested, however.
Local officials have made it clear that at this point the goal is to get testing for everyone who truly needs it.
At the BSW drive-through locations, you must create an account with BSW beforehand and answer a COVID-19 questionnaire about your symptoms, personal interactions, and travel history. In order to get tested for COVID-19 in Texas, you must have the approval of a medical professional.
This is why BSW may send certain people — depending on the answers to their questionnaire — for e-visits with the BSW medical team who can grant that necessary approval. That e-visit costs $40, Baylor Scott & White says.
Someone who doesn’t appear on the questionnaire to need testing for COVID-19 wouldn’t be referred to medical personnel approval and therefore wouldn’t be charged. But someone who is referred to a doctor would be charged, and when that person ultimately is cleared to be tested at the drive-through for COVID-19, those charges would be removed, Baylor Scott & White says.
Once approval to go to the drive-through is granted BSW arranges a time to go to a drive-through location where the patient receives a nasal swab by medical team members who are wearing personal protective equipment according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Then patients will be advised on the next steps, which BSW said will include “isolating at home while awaiting test results.”
From there, positive results will be reported to state and local health departments as “presumptive positive” cases and patients will be notified. Then those results are sent to the CDC for official confirmation.
BSW notes that drive-through sites may relocate based on a number of factors, which is why they say patients should first take the online questionnaire and get guidance from the BSW medical team before arriving at a location.
‘We need to do everything we can as far as getting testing’
KXAN heard from multiple viewers who said they had been charged $40 for taking the BSW questionnaire and trying to get linked up with a doctor to grant approval for the COVID-19 test.
One person who reached out to KXAN was Austinite Andrew Weeks.
Weeks had gone to New Orleans in late February, returning back to Austin on Feb. 27. Immediately after the trip, he felt exhausted, achy and got a fever. He said his lungs started to hurt and he developed a cough. Eventually, Weeks said the fever went down and he got his energy back, but his cough has remained.
He wondered if his symptoms could be due to the new coronavirus and went to get tested his first day back in Austin at a local clinic. Weeks said the employees at the clinic told him not to make an appointment.
“They told me specifically that I would not be tested because I had not been in direct contact with someone who was already been diagnosed with COVID-19 coronavirus, and that I had not been in northern Italy,” Weeks recalled.
Weeks grew frustrated the more he and his wife learned about the shortage of test kits locally and across the country. They even went so far as to post pictures on social media wearing masks with the words “where are the test kits” on them.
When Weeks learned about the Baylor Scott and White locations, he tried again, making an account online and filling out the questionnaire. But then he paused when the BSW account prompted him to pay $40.
Weeks works in the service industry and is self-employed. He said that most of his work opportunities have “dried up” in the past month. The first time around, he decided not to pay the $40 because he wasn’t sure if he’d have work the next few months.
But on Tuesday he went back to the BSW site to see if the fee had been waived. He went through the questionnaire again and was prompted to pay $40 again. This time, his focus was on his risk to the other people around him.
“My mother in law lives with us, she has a compromised immune system, she cannot get sick and I am willing to spend money that I really shouldn’t be spending with the hope that someone will review my case, so I did spend the $40,” he said.
So far, Weeks hasn’t heard back yet about whether he will actually get approved to be tested at a drive-through location.
Though he paid the money, he doesn’t think it’s fair for BSW to charge $40 upfront for a chance at getting tested.
“This is uncharted territory, we don’t know that anyone will be actually getting their money back what they’re spending on these things,” Weeks said.
“I think it’s really disingenuous to have Baylor Scott & White ask for people to front money before the public health and public safety is taken into consideration,” he added.
More than anything, Weeks is hoping that people don’t panic but instead act proactively when it comes to addressing the spread of COVID-19.
“We need to do everything we can as far as getting testing and limiting all the barriers to being safe and healthy and getting testing,” Weeks said. “I think that should be the priority. “
Awaiting more tests
These new drive-through locations are cropping up as state and local leaders promise an imminent influx of kits to test for the presence of the virus that causes COVID-19. The City of Austin says it plans to identify testing locations this week to meet the growing demand but notes that more kits are still needed.
As COVID-19 has spread across the U.S. in the past few weeks, regions have seen delays in and confusion surrounding access to these tests, with federal leaders acknowledging the lack of test kits to meet the demand.
On March 11, Austin Public Health told KXAN that the state lab that runs COVID-19 tests for Travis County, as well as 19 other counties, could only test up to 25 samples per day at that point.
But the number of laboratories in Texas available to test these kits has expanded in the past two weeks and private labs have begun offering this testing in addition to the public labs.
At a press conference earlier Tuesday, Austin’s Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott spoke about the need for more test kits, saying, “right now we are limited in the ability to test because of test kit limitations and PPE [personal protective equipment] necessary to do those tests safely.”
Escott said that Austin should expect an increased number of tests and testing capacity soon.
But not everyone can be first in line to access those test kits.
“We still are going to have to prioritize those who are in the hospital, those who live in a communal facility like a nursing home or an assisted living facility, our healthcare workers, and others who are at higher risk for complications,” he said.
In fact, Escott reminded the public that not everyone needs to get this test.
“The vast majority of individuals who get this illness, it is a mild illness, 80% are mild cases, and the fact that they can’t get tested is not going to be critical for most people because the instructions are going to be ‘stay home, get better, watch Netflix or your favorite cable show and rest,'” Escott explained.
He added that Austin is expecting the arrival of a thousand test kits this week through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and as a result, Austin will be opening community testing sites.
When it comes to the spread of COVID-19 in the Austin area, Escott noted, “it’s happening despite us knowing it or not.”
“The next four to six weeks will be critical for us as a community and us as a country to make the right decisions to make hard decisions so that we can flatten that curve very quickly,” he added.