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Safe, efficient 'drive-thru' virus tests adopted in Niigata, with Nagoya to follow

A medical professional is seen carrying out a "drive-through" PCR test in the city of Niigata, in this image provided by the municipal government.

NIIGATA -- "Drive-through" polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, in which people suspected of novel coronavirus infection can be tested on the spot without getting out of their cars, have been in use at this central Japan city's public health center since March 1.

Uptake of the system has been low among local governments across the country, but the city of Niigata on the Sea of Japan hopes that it will help to prevent the further local spread of infection, and improve the efficiency of containment efforts.

To carry out drive-through PCR tests, people being examined are required to come to the public health center in a private vehicle. Once there, they remain in their car while a health professional conducts a medical interview, and then takes specimens from their throat, nose and other areas.

The scheme is already used widely in South Korea, and the central Japan city of Nagoya, which has one of the largest concentrations of coronavirus infections in the country, is also going ahead with preparations for drive-through testing.

Among its advantages is that it keeps physical contact with potentially infected persons to a minimum. Receiving patients suspected of having the virus at a hospital or clinic presents a much greater risk of transmission. But with the drive-through method, a sequence of tests can be completed from inside cars, thereby limiting contact with others.

The technique also helps optimize diagnoses. Specialized outpatient facilities and other hospitals working cooperatively can generally only collect about 10 samples a day, but between 20 and 30 samples can be collected with the drive-through system.

Additionally, outpatient examinations require medical practitioners to completely change their protective clothing, gloves and other equipment after each patient has been seen. But because the drive-through system is conducted outdoors, all that needs to be replaced between patients are the gloves, allowing each check to be completed in minutes.

Niigata is limiting these tests to people who have had close contact with infected persons and are presenting relatively light symptoms, such that they or a family member can drive to the health center. People that the city government knows to have been in close proximity to others with the virus are being given the option of taking the drive-through tests.

As of March 19, test results have come back from 272 people in that group, almost all of whom were checked using the drive-through PCR system.

"We had experience using this system previously in outbreaks of new strains of influenza, so to ensure the safety of the city's residents as soon as possible, we introduced it again," said Niigata city public health center chief Yoshiki Takahashi at a March 19 press conference.

At the same press conference, Shoko Nojima, head of the city government's health and sanitation department, said, "At present there are 700 people known to have had close contact with infected persons. To have them get tests that accommodate their physical condition, we thought that dedicated outpatient facilities would not be enough."

Regarding the drive-through PCR test system, a post on the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare's official Twitter account read, "It (the system) is often unaccompanied by diagnoses by doctors, so this is not going ahead in our country." Doctors are in fact carrying out diagnoses, and the ministry recognized its mistake and corrected the tweet.

(Japanese original by Hidenori Kitamura, Niigata Bureau)

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