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Irvine opens drive-up COVID-19 testing as Gov. Newsom scales back state’s reopening

Health specialist Mari Cruz grabs a test at a drive-up COVID-19 testing site at Orange County Great Park.
Health specialist Mari Cruz grabs a completed test from a motorist at a drive-up COVID-19 testing site at Irvine’s Orange County Great Park on Monday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Irvine became the first city in Orange County to open a drive-up testing site Monday, as COVID-19 numbers continued to steadily increase.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced during his daily press conference that all of California’s counties would be closing indoor dining and bars, family entertainment, zoos and museums, effective immediately. Most counties, including Orange and Los Angeles, also will be reclosing gyms, churches, hair salons, malls and other businesses.

There were 865 more positive cases of the coronavirus reported Tuesday by the Orange County Health Care Agency, and nine deaths. That brings the cumulative case count to 26,120, including 1,355 skilled nursing facility residents, 432 Orange County jail inmates and 119 people experiencing homelessness.

The cumulative death toll from COVID-19 in the county since the pandemic began in March is now 433. There are 712 cases currently hospitalized, a number that is the highest single-day total during the pandemic, including 237 patients in intensive care units.

Testing has continued to increase, as there have now been 324,479 total tests administered in the county. Roughly 100,000 of those have taken place since June 19.

The testing facility in Irvine, located at Orange County Great Park parking lot No. 6, is offered to people who either live or work in Irvine, whether symptomatic or asymptomatic. It is open from Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is by appointment only, with up to 260 PCR tests being administered per day via nasal or oral swab before being handed to a medical professional. Irvine spokeswoman Melissa Haley said that it took just two days for appointments to be totally booked for the entirety of the monthlong testing program.

However, Haley said the Irvine City Council meets Tuesday night and could vote to expand the program, either by adding more than the three drive-up lanes currently present or making the program last longer.

On site physician Ali Varasteh grabs a completed test from a motorist during drive-up COVID-19 testing.
On-site physician Ali Varasteh grabs a completed COVID-19 test from a motorist with health specialist Mari Cruz watching.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Irvine resident Tiffany Im drove through late Monday to be tested for COVID-19. She said she has been having respiratory issues lately.

“I’m really proud to be an Irvine resident, that they’re doing this to make sure our community is safe,” Im said. “I know that there’s also a lot of concern about the schools reopening here shortly, and I feel like this will let us know if we’re on track to do that or not.”

Orange County Board of Education panel supports reopening schools in the fall but does not recommend increased social distancing or face coverings.

Im said the spiking COVID-19 numbers are a cause for concern, particularly with a young child at home. Her daughter, Tiyan, is 5 years old and will be starting kindergarten. Im said she and her daughter make sure to wear masks while out and about.

“I don’t like [the masks issue becoming political],” she said. “I feel like I’ve snoozed a lot of people on my Facebook feeds recently for making everything political. I just want those who are educated to make the decisions for us, and just work together to try to protect our families.”

Since the drive-up testing is appointment-based, lines rarely got longer than two or three cars. After Im got to the testing station, she asked the medical professional if the test was going to hurt. The response was that she might cry.

“Oh, that’s fine,” Im said. “I’ve been crying since March.”

The city of Irvine partnered with multiple laboratories, including Pangea Laboratory in Costa Mesa, to provide the coronavirus testing.

Alex Hafers, a spokesman for Pangea, said the company’s ownership decided to pivot when the pandemic hit.

“We had some capacity, we had some good turnaround times, so we offered our services,” Hafers said. “Our ownership just wanted to help the community, and what better place to start than our local community? We were able to reach out so quickly because we’re just down the street.”

Lynn Lorenz, a masked crusader, takes sides in the coronavirus culture wars in Newport Beach. She said she’s gotten dirty looks from people for being masked. As if she’s the one who’s a bad neighbor.

The medical professionals on-site at the Great Park are from Curogram, which was founded in Irvine and provides communications options for the medical profession.

“The City Council has put in place appropriate and forward-thinking safety measures every step of the way since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Irvine Mayor Christina Shea said in a statement. “I am very proud that Irvine will be the first city in Orange County to provide testing to those that live and work in Irvine, regardless of whether they have symptoms. Testing continues to be a critical component for reopening under State guidance, while ensuring the health of our community.”

Drivers approach a COVID-19 testing site at Irvine's Orange County Great Park.
Drivers approach a COVID-19 testing site at Irvine’s Orange County Great Park.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Irvine originally tried to institute a drive-up testing program in May, Haley said, but the chosen vendor “was not able to provide the type of service-level detail we needed.” That was when Curogram stepped in.

Curogram Chief Operating Officer Michael Hsu, an Irvine resident whose company has helped develop testing sites in Houston, Atlanta and New York City, said it takes time to develop a drive-up testing program.

“The bottom line is that nobody has ever faced this problem before,” Hsu said. “Nobody really knows who’s supposed to solve it, how do they solve it ... Everybody across the country is learning on the fly.”

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