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A megachurch has helped test nearly 1,000 people for coronavirus in two days

Church of the Highlands, Alabama’s largest megachurch, hosted drive-through coronavirus testing at one of its parking lots in Birmingham on March 17. (Video: Church of the Highlands)

On Sunday, Alabama’s largest church stopped its in-person worship services. By Tuesday, it had started hosting drive-through coronavirus tests in one of its parking lots.

In the span of just two days, doctors in Birmingham tested 977 people from across the state by using the parking lot and volunteers from Church of the Highlands, according to Robert Record, who is helping lead the effort. The drive-through site at one of the United States’ largest churches is part of a nationwide push for more information about covid-19 as more testing locations began to pop up this week.

The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in Alabama as of Tuesday was 39. Twenty-one were in Jefferson County, where Church of the Highlands is located, according to On Tuesday, the testing at the church confirmed eight positive coronavirus cases, Record said. With testing still in short supply but in high demand, patients must have symptoms to be tested.

“We navigate how sick they are,” he said. “One of our goals is that people not go into a doctor’s office and not go into a hospital if they don’t have to.”

During the tests, doctors speak with patients through cellphones and evaluate them through their car windows. On Tuesday, he said, two people seemed to be in respiratory distress and were sent to the hospital; one was put on a respirator there.

A patient does not roll down the window until the last 30 seconds, when someone in protective gear swabs them. Those with health care are billed through their insurance; others do not have to pay for the test.

“You show up, you’ll be treated like the most affluent person in the world,” Record said. “In the next few weeks, we’ll find out how to pay for it later.”

Church of the Highlands, which usually averages 50,000 people for weekend services, is a prominent congregation in one of the most religious states in the nation. Its lead pastor, Chris Hodges, has been in touch with the governor of Alabama, according to Record. The church, he said, was able to pull off the testing because it started a health clinic in 2009 that sees more than 18,000 patients a year.

Record, who leads the now-independent clinic and is on the church’s staff, said that last Friday he thought some patients had coronavirus symptoms, but he had no way of testing them. On Saturday, his friend Ty Thomas of Assurance Scientific Laboratories contacted him, saying he wanted to use tests the lab had been developing since January. On Sunday, they met with church leaders, and on Tuesday, they tested 347 patients.

Almost everything is done while the windows are rolled up. Patients take a picture of their paperwork. Once the clinic receives the test result from the lab, the clinic notifies the patient and the Alabama Department of Public Health.

The testing Tuesday mostly went smoothly, Record said, except that the long line of cars clogged a key highway next to a hospital. Leaders moved the operation to another campus Wednesday.

As people sit in the parking lot, they can tune into an FM radio station for updates and call a number for prayer. In the first hour of testing, they received 321 call-ins, Church of the Highlands Associate Pastor Layne Schranz said.

“People were chaotic in their lives and busy. Now they’re sitting still. It’s scary to wait,” Schranz said. “In unstable times, people want to hold onto a stable God.”

People seeking to be tested are given strict instructions to keep their windows rolled up and are told that no public restrooms are available.

Schranz said they are taking it day by day but plan to keep testing while there is demand. He said other church leaders around the country have reached out to find out if their parking lots could similarly be used for testing.

“You have to have the medical side, and you have to have the laboratory side,” he said. “Without those, having a large parking lot is no use.”

The megachurch has 22 campuses and is part of the Association of Related Churches, a nondenominational church-planting network. It has a Pentecostal style of worship and is known across the state as a church that “gets stuff done,” said Collin Hansen, a Birmingham-based editorial director for an evangelical network called the Gospel Coalition.

“We have a lot more trust in our churches than in our government,” Hansen said of Alabamians. “These are the folks who show up wearing the bright green T-shirt and clean up your neighborhood.”

Greg Garrison, a religion reporter for the Birmingham News and, who first reported on the testing, said the testing involved 20 staffers from the church, more than 100 volunteers, three people from a testing lab and 10 staff members from the clinic.

“I’m sure there are a lot of people who are uncomfortable with the state’s largest church being in such a prominent role. The fact of the matter is, they’re in a good position to do this,” he said. “It’s like polling. It’s a government thing, it’s a civic thing, but sometimes it’s most practical to do this at churches.”

Garrison said it is probably the most ambitious outreach in conducting mass numbers of tests in the Birmingham area.

“People are scared and want to get tested,” he said. “At this point, I think people are glad that somebody is doing it.”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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