First-Person: Taking the Test for COVID-19

Pennsylvania Guard Members test medical equipment before Montgomery County residents arrive at a a coronavirus testing site in Upper Dublin Township on March 21, 2020. At the direction of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, approximately 80 Guard troops worked with Montgomery County Emergency Management Agency and local authorities to establish drive-through COVID-19 testing at Temple University’s Ambler Campus. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Wil Acosta)
Pennsylvania Air National Guard members test medical equipment before Montgomery County residents arrive at a coronavirus testing site in Upper Dublin Township on March 21. (Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Wil Acosta)

Waiting in a line of cars to get tested for the disease currently ravaging the world has a way of giving a strange weight to absolute banalities.

On April 5, I sat and listened to a few sportswriters spar over NBA MVP voting from my phone speakers as I inched along at the Montgomery County COVID-19 testing site, set up at the Temple University Ambler campus. What a strangely hopeful action — or maybe deluded (nearly the same thing) — to devote passion and time to talking about LeBron right now, I thought.

I had woken that morning with a slight cough, which left me with a tight chest. I didn’t think it was enough to warrant taking a test, but as I found myself under my parents’ roof, the decision was no longer mine. They asked me to get an appointment for a test, a process which ended up being far easier than expected. By a little after 8 a.m., I was assigned the 1-2 p.m. time slot, with instructions to bring my insurance card, driver’s license and registration materials. The registration materials never made it to my inbox, and I spent a few minutes on hold before I spoke to someone from the county, who told me that since I had registered, I was already on a list, and probably fine. Works for me.

I drove over to the campus that afternoon. As I came up Meetinghouse Road, I saw the parking lots, vast and mostly empty, even with what I could glimpse of the testing site.

I turned onto the campus and hit the first checkpoint, a police officer with two testing site workers. Masked and gloved, just as I was, they held up a sign, asking to see my registration. I tried to gesture with my hands, but try this at home: How might you convey, “I never received it, and I even checked my spam folder, and the woman on the phone said it was fine if I just showed up?” I made the (quite anachronistic) sign that I was going to roll my window down, and as I did, all three took a step backward. I explained the situation as succinctly as I could, they checked for my name and sent me down the cone-lined road.

There’s a bit of a hill, when you approach the Temple Ambler parking lot from that direction, and I couldn’t see anything besides the cars ahead of me. I didn’t know how many there were, or how frequently they would move. The podcast grew stale; I turned on the radio, and then turned it off.

As I moved to the crest of the hill, I saw where the road curved into the actual testing site, where two women were going from car to car and gathering information from drivers. They were each wearing light-blue full-body protective equipment, visors with elongated face shields and earrings. Off to the side of the road, men in National Guard uniforms chatted with site employees and police officers, all safely distanced from one another, some masked and gloved, others not.

One of the women in blue motioned for me to put my insurance card and driver’s license up the window. She jotted down whatever info she needed onto a form, and stuck it in my windshield wipers. By this point, I could see the full testing site. There were six or eight tents of various drab colors, and one blue tent, large enough for multiple cars to drive through. That was the testing tent.

Here, site workers were protected by the same equipment as the women outside the tent, some adding protection to their shoes or hair. No one was idle; there was constant motion and conversation.

Finally, I was at the front of the line, looking out the bright exit of the tent to the empty side of the parking lot. A tester motioned for me to roll my window down, and asked if I’d ever had a nasal swab before, brandishing a cotton swab. Oh, uh, no, I said.

I later read that the swab is meant to be inserted about 4 centimeters into your nasopharynx. Let me be one of many to say that 4 centimeters was way more than I thought it was. The tester patiently counted to 10 as I teared up, and removed the swab. He told me to wait on a call. The number was on a sheet the women in blue gave to me.

The next morning, I woke up with my cough gone, and my chest clear. And I did that for the next few mornings. All week, I refrained from putting my phone on Do Not Disturb, or even on silent, as I did not want to miss the call; they’ll call three times, and if you don’t pick up, they won’t leave a message, and then you’ll have to call the county, and who wants to call and say, “Hi, do I have coronavirus?”

My phone rang mid-morning on April 10. It felt like getting college application response letters; I didn’t want preamble. I wanted the first words I heard to just be “yes” or “no.”

All week I’d told myself that I knew I was fine; yes, asymptomatic people can still have COVID-19, but c’mon, look at me. I’m fine. Really, I’m fine.

The woman on the other end asked for my birth date, and for my name. After, yes, preamble, she said something along the lines of, “I’m calling you today to let you know that, based on your test, you are negative for the coronavirus.”

As I thanked her for calling and hung up the phone, I received another little gift: a moment, just a moment, of pure calm.

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