COVID-19 in Pa.: NEPA drive-thru testing site opens amid heavy security

The Pa. Dept. of Health's COVID-19 drive-thru testing site in Wilkes-Barre Twp., Pa. (Capital-Star photo by Patrick Abdalla)

WILKES-BARRE TWP., Pa. — Cars began lining up alongside Highland Park Boulevard just before noon as the midday sun shone down on the parking lot of the nearby Mohegan Sun Arena.

Just moments before, the Lackawanna County Sheriff’s Department, and crews from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation had shut down the normally busy thoroughfare in preparation for a busy afternoon. 

Inside the parking lot, tents filled with medical personnel waited to test those who had preregistered for a drive-thru COVID-19 test.

The site was open from noon to 4 p.m. on Monday for medical professionals and first responders to be tested. It is expected to be open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily so it can test up to 200 residents aged 65 and older, first responders and medical professionals who have COVID-19 symptoms.

The state Department of Health is coordinating the effort. 

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The location of the testing site has been somewhat controversial in northeastern Pennsylvania.

State Sen. John Yudichak, I-Luzerne, has been a vocal opponent of the site, arguing it should be somewhere other than a commercial district. The arena is in the middle of a large suburban shopping district that includes a retail mall, several shopping centers, and more than two dozen chain restaurants. 

Luzerne County has been one of the hardest hit areas of the state. With a population of 317,000, it had 1,767 confirmed cases as of midday Monday, state data showed. To put that in perspective, nearby Lackawanna County has a population of just over 200,000, but only 646 cases.

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Extra precautions are being taken at the site. With Highland Park Boulevard closed, those who get tested are forced to return to Interstate 81 when they leave the site.

“If you’re getting tested, it means you have symptoms consistent with COVID-19,” state Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said during an online news briefing on Monday afternoon. “Going shopping after that time [getting tested] would not be prudent.”

Before the parking lot opened on Monday, Sheriff’s deputies and local police were stationed in cars at the entrance to the arena, inside the parking lot, and in nearby parking lots. 

Once inside the parking lot, drivers followed traffic cones up to the tents, where they met medical staff. Patients are then given swabs for their noses. The Department of Health says the results should be given in two to three days.

Residents can pre-register for testing at the Department of Health’s website. Anyone who registers, must remember to bring a valid ID and their registration email to the site.

Levine said Monday that registration was only open to those with access to a laptop, smartphone or an email address. There was no way to register otherwise.

The department said it will keep residents updated on the testing.

“We intend on putting out daily updates on the testing of individuals at the testing site in the WIlkes-Barre area,” agency spokesperson Nate Wardle said.

Correspondent Patrick Abdalla covers Northeastern Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star. Follow him on Twitter @PaddyAbs.