While a national plan for testing for the coronavirus—a key to reopening the battered U.S. economy—remains a topic of controversy and concern, a cadre of food and drug retailers, including Walmart and The Kroger Co., are stepping up efforts to do their part.
The retailers’ respective CEOs, Doug McMillon and Rodney McMullen, spoke at the White House on April 27, saying they would each expand drive-thru testing locations at select stores at least through the end of May. They were joined by Larry Merlo of CVS Health, Richard Ashworth of Walgreens and Heyward Donigan of Rite Aid, who also detailed plans to expand testing facilities.
These private-public partnerships would support a federal effort to conduct as many as 8 million tests a month by the end of May, according to federal officials, and represents a kind of reboot to a slow-to-develop retail-store testing plan announced as President Donald Trump declared a national emergency 45 days before.
The president this week, however, said individual states, and not the federal government, would spearhead U.S. testing efforts. It was unclear whether states had the financial wherewithal to adequately execute that effort, reports noted. Retail sites doing testing are partnering with local and state governments, federal authorities and laboratories, and represent a new side to the extraordinary role that retail food stores have played in the nation’s response to the national health crisis.
About 5.6 million tests for the coronavirus had been conducted in the U.S. as of April 28, according to the COVID Tracking Project. Millions more are required to safely reopen the economy. More than 55,000 Americans have died from the virus.
Walmart, which participated in the March 13 event at the White House and opened its first drive-up testing site March 21, said it was now supporting 20 testing sites in 12 states and has tested about 13,000 people. This week, the retailer said it would open about 25 more sites, and by the end of May, it projects operating more than 100, conducting approximately 20,000 tests a week.
In a blog post, Dan Bartlett, EVP of corporate affairs for Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart, said the company has learned from experience at initial sites to “refine and improve” its testing operations. “None of this was the traditional role of a retailer,” he noted. The company has worked with lab partners to introduce online registration and has changed the test from a pharmacist-assisted swab to self-swabs administered by patients who never leave their cars.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is covering the cost of the tests. Each of the sites are supported by Walmart pharmacists, whom Bartlett described as paid volunteers; staff from our lab partners; security and law enforcement from the local community or state, including the National Guard; and volunteers from Remote Area Medical.
Cincinnati-based Kroger said its Kroger Health division plans to expand its drive-thru COVID-19 testing model to 50 locations in more than 12 states to perform up to 100,000 tests by the end of May. To date, Kroger Health has performed nearly 8,000 tests in 30 locations in Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee. The company has also launched a pilot for site-specific testing for company associates in Michigan and Colorado.
“As America’s grocer, Kroger is here for our associates, customers, communities and our country,” McMullen said in a statement. “As part of Kroger’s commitment to help America reopen safely, we are proud to help expand access to COVID-19 testing as a partner in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Public-Private Testing Partnership.”
A key enabler of this expansion is pharmacists’ ability to order and administer COVID-19 testing, Kroger said. Earlier this month, HHS issued a statement authorizing licensed pharmacists to order and administer COVID-19 tests.
“I’m particularly energized by the opportunity for our pharmacists to take a lead role at testing sites through the expanded scope of practice,” said Colleen Lindholz, president of Kroger Health. “This will enable tens of thousands of additional healthcare professionals to join the fight on the front lines.”
Through the collaboration, HHS is providing access to test kits and laboratory services via eTrueNorth, and Kroger Health is providing professional services via its multidisciplinary team of nurse practitioners, pharmacists and technicians.
Using the HHS-recommended testing model, Kroger Health performs approximately 250-330 tests per day. Kroger Health testing sites use anterior nares or mid-turbinate nasal swab tests that are designed to increase safety. Patients remain in their cars throughout the testing process, which is completed in just a few minutes using self-administered test kits.
The company said Kroger Health is offering free virtual screening tool to determine if testing is appropriate for them and identify available, dates and locations.
The screening tool was adapted from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations and is intended to identify patients most in need of testing. Additionally, the website is updated weekly as new testing sites continue to open across the country.