I got tested for COVID-19. Here’s what to expect

Photo by Jake Zuckerman

Let me start with what you came here for: It stinks to jam an extended, bendy Q-tip-like thing into your own schnoz.

And no, diagnostic testing did not reveal the presence of the coronavirus in my system.

Ohio’s scaled up test capacity means priority-fives like me (non-health care worker, non-high risk group, no known exposure, and no symptoms) can go get tested so epidemiologists can better visualize the spread of the new coronavirus within the population.

On Friday, I drove to the Ohio Department of Public Safety offices in Columbus for a free, pop-up COVID-19 testing day, jointly held by the Ohio Department of Health and Kroger. 

I was nervous, after a chilling comparison my girlfriend offered that morning.

“It’s like a pap smear, but for your nasopharynx,” she told me.

Friday was one of several pop-up test days in Franklin County, which has overtaken Cuyahoga County as the state’s heaviest caseload (7,915 as of Monday) and death count (358) of COVID-19.

I’ve spent a lot of time reporting on and writing about testing in Ohio, like how officials fumbled establishing in-state testing in February and failed to scale it up by early June, as promised.

State data shows Ohio’s testing rates are increasing, but still lagging what Gov. Mike DeWine describes as “testing capacity,” as well as benchmarks set by Harvard University researchers.

Friday marked my first visit to ODPS since March 5, when DeWine hosted a COVID-19 summit for Ohio’s health commissioners about the mysterious virus from Wuhan, China. 

Though Ohio had yet to detect any cases, we now know via contact tracing that the coronavirus had been swimming through the state for more than two months when Gov. Mike DeWine took what felt like a bold, pre-emptive strike of shutting down a major sports festival to slow the virus’ spread

(However prescient that cancelation, he also said to me in an interview later that day that the coronavirus would not interfere with the March 17 election, a prediction that proved wholly incorrect.)

My judgement day came with a twist: I was to take a self-administered test. Its instructions came in about as sterile a form as the swab itself.

“Place the swab midway in your nose. Rotate the swab twice. Hold the swab in your nostril for 15 seconds. Repeat steps in the opposite nostril.”

Turns out, I’m kind of a wimp.

In my opinion, the swab was deep enough in there. Too deep, maybe. But the clinician observing me — draped in a gown, face shield, N95 and other high-fashion of the pandemic — had other ideas, shared through my cracked-open car window.

“You have a long way to go, you gotta keep pushing back, it’s going to be painful,” she said. “Go more toward the ear, find some space in there.”

It was over quickly. I got a little teary, but the kind of tears you get from overdoing it on a habanero pepper, more than death-in-the-family kind of tears.

It wasn’t that bad.

Amy McCormick, a spokeswoman for Kroger, told me there’s nothing to suggest a higher error rate on self administered swabs (with proper observation and guidance) than a clinician-conducted sampling. 

William Miller, an epidemiologist at the Ohio State University, told me that self-collected swabs are nothing new in public health.

“The biggest concern is whether a swab that doesn’t go deep enough, meaning it is collected in the anterior nares (the front of the nostril) and whether that might cause some false negative tests,” he said. “Right now, I haven’t seen the data to say whether that is a real or an unnecessary concern. Theoretically, it could be but practically, it might not be.”

Ohio reports its test data cumulatively. As of Monday, 656,318 Ohioans have been tested.

It’s a big number, but as the governor, health director, and anyone involved in this life-wrenching pandemic has said at least once, testing is a measurement taken at a point in time. I took a test Friday and got a negative result back Monday, but that doesn’t mean I’ll remain COVID-19 free by Tuesday. 

Vaccines take years, when and if they’re developed, and I’m not holding my breath on a miracle treatment anytime soon.

That leaves a more crude toolset of masks, tests, distancing, and the looming risk of a shutdown.

Paul Romer, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2018, pitched an idea in March that still wields traction. What if we just test everybody, every two weeks to inject some confidence back into the people who comprise the economy?

It’ll be expensive, sure, but so are shutdowns, or de facto shutdowns brought on by fear of contagion.

It’s an unlikely idea but it makes you think. To me, it seems more likely that COVID-19 tests are probably going to be less a point-in-time occurrence and more of another chore before we visit our parents and grandparents, travel, or go about business as usual. 

In the next year, there will be a lot more bendy Q-tips jammed up a lot more schnozes, my own included.

On Saturday, President Donald Trump said he asked his administration to slow down testing to tamp down case counts. 

“Here’s the bad part … when you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people; you’re going to find more cases,” he said. “So I said to my people, slow the testing down please.”

As for me, I’ll stick to the advice my testing guru offered Friday while I went after nostril number two. 

“You’ve got to go way farther,” she said. “You haven’t even cleared the cotton yet.”

If you live in Columbus and would like free testing, sites are available at the following dates from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Info on pop-up testing around elsewhere around the state is available here.

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