Testing and safety match up well when Walk Up Doc’s on the job in Codman Sq.

Dr. Stephen Tringale performing a test on a patient in the Walk Up Doc outside of Codman Square Health Center.

A new type of technology is helping physicians and health care providers at Codman Square Health Center (CSHC) test patients for COVID-19 infections more safely while lessening the pressure caused by shortages of personal protection equipment (PPE). The Walk Up Doc, a plexiglass structure akin to a telephone booth with holes cut out for arm-length rubber gloves, allows testers to administer tests for the virus without the need for masks or gowns.

The apparatus was donated to the health care center last Monday by Trigger House, a creative design company based in Portsmouth, NH, and joins a similar structure that the center acquired earlier this month with the help of Partners HealthCare. Currently, both are in use in the outdoor testing tent outside of Codman Square Health Center, where between 30 and 70 walk-in patients are being tested each day.

CSHC CEO Sandra Cotterell told the Reporter that in addition to preserving PPE resources, the booths provide a “critical” level of comfort for healthcare providers. “When COVID hit, it was apparent right out of the gate that people were concerned with their own personal safety, especially with supplies and materials being limited and safety equipment being limited. So when an opportunity presented itself, it was a no brainer to look at this as a great way to make people feel safe.”

Lindsay Soares White, a nurse practitioner and clinical lead for the community testing tent initiative at CSHC, said the new testing booth will save 3-6 masks and gowns per day, a big boon for efforts to preserve scarce stockpiles of PPE, particularly N-95 masks, which continue to be “challenging to come by.

“It completely encloses the tester on the sides that face the patient so any particles that are put into the air during the testing procedure, like coughing or sneezing, that tester is protected,” explained Soares White. “Masks help filter those particles, and gowns help keep them off your clothes, but actual plastic booths completely block them, so it’s a higher level of safety for the tester.”

The Mass League of Community Health Centers, known as Mass League or simply “The League,” worked with Trigger House to arrange the placements of the donated Walk Up Docs, which are now in use in Codman Square as well as at a health center in Brockton. Jim Hunt, president and CEO of Mass League, said he was “impressed from the get-go” by the initiative and “social conscience” shown by the company.

Trigger House, a versatile creative design agency that builds everything from mall displays to concert rigs and television sets, has pivoted in recent weeks to making testing booths for those on the front lines of the pandemic. Hunt said he only found out about the company a week ago through a family friend.

“Their CEO, Josh Sheets, called me up and said they want to donate one of these Walk Up Docs to Codman, and that they’re delivering it today. I told him we’d look at arranging transportation, delivery, et cetera, and he said, ‘Oh, no, we’ll do all that.’ I came away from that conversation really impressed.”

Hunt, a lifelong Dorchester resident, added that he was further impressed after personally testing out the booth in Codman Square last Monday.

“It has an excellent intercom system that allows the health care provider to communicate with the patient safely, and it’s very clear and understandable; I could hear people talking in the parking lot 15 feet away.”

Testing booths like the ones created by Trigger House are quickly becoming commonplace; a similar model dubbed the “Hexapod” is currently in use at Mass General and Brigham and Women’s testing centers, and Hunt says other companies around the country are looking into purchasing and developing models of their own. He sees the Walk Up Docs and other units becoming standard at health centers and hospitals as the healthcare world adjusts to the long-term reality of the pandemic era.

“This ‘new normal’ is going to have us doing testing for a long time; testing and retesting,” said Hunt. “We may end up formulating partnerships with small businesses to have people with symptoms tested and people without symptoms on the front lines tested and retested...I don’t think we’re back to normal in three months, so I could see uses of the booths being multifaceted in the long run for other types of treatment.”

Hunt noted that due to the size of the booths, he wasn’t sure if they would be “a right fit” for all health centers. Most currently in use are located in outside tented locations, like at Codman, or in designated spaces inside some of the more spacious centers.

However, Hunt said, Mass League is considering purchasing more booths from Trigger House and developing that relationship in the future. Ballparked at around $5,000 each, the units are being made available for “by far the lowest price on the market,” he added. 

“My sense is that big companies that want to protect employees and big insurers who want to lower the total cost of care are going to have real interest in devices like this, and that eventually they’ll be looked at for commercial use, as well.”

The immediate impact at Codman Square Health Center is already being felt, noted Hunt, who suggested that the technology could help boost testing numbers in vulnerable communities like Dorchester.

“We worry about the equity equation a lot at The League, and in communities of color, communities where languages other than English are spoken, and communities where fear has people not wanting to go to hospitals, this could make a real impact.”