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Harford coronavirus testing site at Ripken Stadium opens for one-day pilot, could be made more permanent

Dan Dausch knew that any type of sickness was “not a good look” around his office during the coronavirus pandemic, even if he was only nursing a cold. So his coworkers exhorted him to get a COVID test, and Tuesday, he was one of many who turned out to Ripken Stadium’s drive-through testing center.

The testing center in Aberdeen bustled with blue-plastic-clad workers from University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health and staff of the Harford County Health Department, collecting specimens for analysis and guiding the steady flow of traffic out of the parking lot. The tests will go to Mako Medical Laboratories for analysis, and about 1,000 spots were available for appointments.

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There were 714 people tested at Ripken Stadium Tuesday, according to Molly Mraz, a spokesperson for the Harford County Health Department.

Bryan Mroz, who heads the state’s testing task force, said the location was open Tuesday as a pilot, but if it is used sufficiently, then it could become a more permanent fixture. The location was chosen collaboratively by the Harford County Health Department, UCH, county government and state officials, he said, to be a regional testing hub for its population and proximity to other population centers.

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“They want to determine if this is the strategy which they would want to go forward with, but if it is successful and we get lots of people coming through, I think there would be effort to make it more permanent,” he said.

Harford County Health Officer Russell Moy said the state was planning to reopen vehicle emissions inspection sites for their intended purposes in September, meaning halting the testing that has been done at those sites in several Maryland counties.

“So now everybody needs to come up with plans; what are you going to do after the VEIPs are no longer available for testing,” he said. “So we are looking at different possibilities, maybe more than one.”

Harford officials are considering Ripken Stadium as a possible site for long-term COVID testing center, he said.

Dausch, 33, of Aberdeen, said the experience was quick and easy; he did not have to leave his car, and the nose-swab was not invasive like some other tests he had heard of. His chief apprehension in going to the site was “having his brain poked” as part of the test, but the swab was not painful and did not have to go in far.

He did acknowledge the strangeness of the experience watching plastic-covered workers hop between cars — an “E.T. experience” — but he said the staff was friendly.

More worrisome was the potential lag between testing and getting a result. Someone could be tested and be infected in the interval between the test and its result, he said. He did not see things returning to normal until a more permanent solution can be found. Dausch said he felt a sense of resignation, to a certain extent, because of the lack of a surefire way to prevent infections and further death stops people from returning to everyday life before the pandemic hit Maryland.

“We need some light at the end of the tunnel,” Dausch said. “Until we get a vaccine, I don’t see an end in sight.”

Lyle Sheldon, president and CEO of UCH, said the testing site was planned with lessons learned from other congested test centers. The traffic, he said, was manageable. At 10 a.m., a steady drip of cars made their way through the cone-lined tracks to the testing tents.

“Spacing out the appointments made a huge, huge difference,” Sheldon said. “As patient as people are, regardless of what they are doing, they do not like to wait.”

For Bill Ripken, executive vice president of the Aberdeen Ironbirds, there was no hesitation to say yes to hosting the testing site.

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“We got this perfectly good sized parking lot that is not being used for fans of our baseball season because we do not have one,” he said. “This seems like a thing that you should do.”

Mroz said the agencies who organized the testing site deserved praise, but the citizens who showed up should be lauded too. Some are apprehensive about contracting the virus by going to a site; others are worried about testing positive, which could have an impact on their work, their families and their lives.

“It is the citizens who are going to make the difference and we really need to thank them for coming out and making that difference,” Mroz said. “We can provide all the space that we want, but if they do not come out, the whole system does not work ... . Everyone needs to be involved in this, and it can end, but we have all got to be involved.”

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