By Rebecca Cook
DETROIT (Reuters) – Detroit residents waited for hours on Tuesday to get free COVID-19 tests at a new facility that for the first time offered testing to people who did not already have symptoms of the disease and a doctor’s authorization for the test.
“I don’t want to take a chance,” said Cheryl Albright, a 58-year-old Detroit woman with hypertension and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), conditions she knows put her at higher risk. Albright said she has family members who have tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus.
She lined up at 10 a.m. ET (1400 GMT) for a test, and was still in the line with about 100 others more than two hours later.
“This is important to me. I think this is something everyone should do,” she said.
Tuesday’s tests were the start of a free program for Detroit residents, said Dr. Phillip Levy, professor of emergency medicine at Wayne State University. Even those without symptoms can get tested with a nasal swab for the virus as well as have their blood drawn to test for antibodies.
When the testing effort was launched last month, it served only first responders and healthcare workers in the region.
Demand for blood tests has risen as the push to reopen states’ economies picks up steam. Knowing who is immune could help speed up that process, health officials have said.
“Detroit is one of the hardest hit areas in the country. It’s got some of the highest case loads, some of the highest death rates, so it’s really important that we get testing out into the community,” Levy said in a telephone interview.
“If you’re thinking about restarting the economy, it’s important to know you are not acutely infectious and you have evidence of immunity,” he added.
Michigan has been one of the worst hit states, but officials have said the infection rate is dropping. As of Monday, Michigan had reported more than 38,000 COVID-19 cases and 3,407 deaths. Detroit made up the largest portion of those with almost 8,700 cases and 950 deaths.
As Michigan and other states begin to reopen their economies, state and local officials have stressed the importance of testing.
President Donald Trump and other federal officials are facing criticism for not moving quickly enough to expand testing. Administration officials have said the federal government is sending enough swabs and related equipment to all 50 states to cover their entire testing objectives for the months of May and June.
The Wayne State program expects to test as many as 400 people on Tuesday and hopes to do the same every day for the next six to eight weeks, working closely with Michigan as it ramps up its own testing efforts, Levy said.
In the Detroit program, the tests are administered by Garcia Laboratories using Abbott Laboratories instruments, Levy said.
(Reporting by Rebecca Cook and Ben Klayman; writing by Ben Klayman; editing by Jonathan Oatis)