White tents in parking lots have become a visual indicator of the evolving fight against the novel coronavirus, a sign of the slow ramp up of accessible testing. But that can come with a glaring gap: access for people who don’t or can’t drive.
Advocates for people who ride transit and people with disabilities asked Mayor Jenny Durkan and the Seattle City Council Wednesday to require drive-thru services, including health care and businesses like fast-food restaurants, to allow people to approach on foot or using a wheelchair.
“Our communities are facing unprecedented challenges at this moment — challenges that are complex or incredibly difficult to address. This, however, is a problem that is easily resolved,” said the letter signed by groups including Disability Rights Washington and the National Federation of the Blind of Washington.
Mayor Jenny Durkan indicated some support but no plans for legislation Wednesday. Durkan “would be supportive” if the City Council proposed a “measure to increase accessibility” and supports “encouraging businesses … to find ways for all individuals to have safe, reliable access,” her office said in a statement.
Driving through — whether to pick up food or for coronavirus testing — offers a quick way to limit contact between the person inside the car and others.
When Gov. Jay Inslee shut down restaurant dining rooms and bars last month, some restaurants quickly shifted to drive-thru. Throughout the region, most of the more than two dozen COVID-19 testing sites available for limited populations are drive-thru, according to an ongoing Seattle Times tally.
For those without cars, some of these sites are not options and traveling at all can mean increased exposure on transit or in an Uber or Lyft ride.
“To what extent am I putting myself at risk of exposure to get this test?” said ChrisTiana ObeySumner, who doesn’t drive because of a disability. After weeks of symptoms and a doctor’s recommendation last month, ObeySumner turned to a community aid group for a ride to a testing site.
Cathy Tenzo, who lives in Columbia City and doesn’t own a car, hasn’t needed a test yet, but is anxious about what would happen if she did.
“I’m like a lot of people, I can’t really afford an ambulance,” Tenzo said. Taking a taxi could put the driver at risk, the bus or light rail could endanger other passengers and the car rental service Tenzo previously used has shuttered.
“I don’t know the safest thing to do because I don’t want to harm other people,” she said.
Public Health — Seattle & King County on Wednesday encouraged people who feel sick to avoid public transit and use personal vehicles whenever possible, including trying to borrow from a friend or family member.
Public health officials are working with King County Metro to create a separate service to help people with COVID-19 get to medical appointments, the department said. Public Health encouraged people with disabilities to contact Access, Metro’s paratransit service.
Harborview Medical Center has a walk-up testing area for employees and patients, said spokeswoman Susan Gregg. Kaiser Permanente’s Capitol Hill location offers walk-up testing once patients have an initial assessment from their doctor, said spokeswoman Julie Popper.
Swedish Medical Center’s community clinics for testing patients with COVID-19 symptoms are currently drive-thru, but three Swedish respiratory clinics can be accessed without a car, said spokeswoman Tiffany Moss. Patients can be tested there when they meet state criteria and their primary care doctors have directed them there for a test.
Before the pandemic, Portland began requiring businesses to allow pedestrians and bicyclists in drive-thrus if other areas for pedestrians were closed. Advocates on Wednesday asked Seattle to “immediately adopt similar guidelines.”
ObeySumner sees a chance for long-term change. “The walk-up testing piece is one small piece of an area where improvement can be made in the future for any testing or any sort of access to health care,” ObeySumner said.
When Marci Carpenter’s doctor suggested in mid-March that she get a COVID-19 test, the doctor referred her to a drive-thru site operated by University of Washington Medicine.
Carpenter, who is blind and president of the National Federation of the Blind of Washington, was grateful her husband could drive her to the site. But when she asked her doctor about options for people who don’t drive, her doctor didn’t know of any.
“There is testing available for patients now on a doctor’s recommendation,” Carpenter said, “and it’s just as important for us to be tested as anyone else.”