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Thanh Khong with fellow health care worker

“Tremendously grateful”: Running drive-through COVID operations at Stanford Health Care

This Voices of COVID story features physician assistant Thanh Khong, who manages testing and vaccination operations for Stanford Health Care.

Thanh Khong, PA-C, who oversees many of Stanford Health Care's drive-through testing and vaccination sites, spends most of his time managing the testers and inoculators and figuring out site logistics. But when the line of cars grows long, the physician assistant steps in to help with the swabbing and shot-giving.

"It's physically demanding," he said about inserting swabs into noses and sticking needles into arms. "You're always on your feet; you're exposed to the elements. It wears you out."

To make his workers' jobs a little easier, he brings some indoor comforts to the outdoors. "I make sure they have heaters, coffee machines, cushioned pads they can stand on," he said. "I also bribe them with banh mi sandwiches from San Jose."

A need for testing and vaccinating

Thanh Khong with fellow health care workers
Thanh Khong makes sure the testing workers have coffee, cushioned pads and, occasionally, bahn mi sandwiches.

Before COVID-19, Khong (known to colleagues as TK) worked at Stanford Health Care's Express Clinic, where he saw patients and managed the other physician assistants and nurse practitioners. A PA for seven years, he had been working at Express Care for the last three.

As the coronavirus made its way to the Bay Area, he said, "We quickly realized we needed to start drive-through testing, to keep the virus out of the clinic as much as possible."

Khong was part of a team that launched a drive-through operation March 9, 2020. As the number of patients grew, the testing site moved to a larger location and expanded to include multiple sites.

His crew has swabbed as many as 1,000 noses daily. They now screen not only for the coronavirus, but for flu, strep and other pathogens. "We'll test anyone who shows up," he said. That includes patients who make an appointment as well as drop-ins who meet Santa Clara County testing criteria.

A patient receives a COVID-19 vaccination at the Arrillaga Recreation Center

Once the COVID-19 vaccine became available to patients 65 years and older in January, Khong helped launch a vaccination site at Arrillaga Recreation Center on campus, where his crew is vaccinating 500 people a day and planning to ramp up to 1,000 daily.

Each day, Khong heads to one of the sites to ensure everything is in order -- that his team has enough equipment, for example, or that canopies are installed if rain is forecast. He hires and manages a crew 15 of swabbers and seven inoculators, about half of them traveling nurses, the other half nurses or physician assistants from other parts of Stanford Health Care who volunteer for a few days.

"This job has been incredibly busy and demanding," he said, "but it's also been very fulfilling."

Traffic math

He's found that he enjoys logistical conundrums such as figuring out traffic flow. "It's a math problem," he said, referring to one of his favorite subjects in school. "You have to schedule just the right amount so traffic doesn't back up but you maximize the swabbing time."

When his work is done for the day, Khong said, "I'm just beat up when I get home." He relaxes by reading and learning about a variety of non-medical subjects, such as finance, philosophy, ancient history or travel.

cars lined up for COVID testing
Organizing drive-through testing operations is basically a math problem, says Stanford Health Care PA Thanh Khong.

Khong had the option of returning to Express Care a few months after running the testing sites. Though he misses seeing patients, he felt too invested in the drive-through endeavor to give it up.

"I wasn't ready to hand it over to someone else," he said. "It's like giving up your child."

"There's a lot of joy"

He's glad he's been able to help control the pandemic by overseeing tens of thousands of coronavirus tests and, now, vaccinations. But he's especially proud that because Stanford Medicine was one of the first organizations to offer drive-through testing sites in the country, he has advised other health care organizations in starting up their own drive-through tests.

"We're not just taking care of Stanford patients," he said. "Our work has helped get this testing started around the Bay Area."

He said that the patients getting tested for the virus have always been grateful, but now, those receiving vaccinations can become quite emotional.

"Some of them are in tears," he said. "There's a lot of joy. A lot of these patients, who are 65 and older, haven't been out of their homes in months. Now they have hope that they can go back to how they lived before the pandemic. They are tremendously grateful."

The Voices of COVID series captures the stories of the many people at Stanford Medicine who have been stepping up to the challenge of the pandemic. Follow along on social media and look for new stories regularly. 

Photos by Steve Fisch

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