My Harrowing Experience Getting Tested at a Drive-Thru Coronavirus Center
The test itself is physically painful, but the emotional and psychological labor of the experience is far more excruciating.
When he was asked by an NBC reporter to describe the experience of being tested for COVID-19, Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes replied flatly: “It can be moderately uncomfortable.” Having now experienced it for myself, I’d like to nominate the good doctor for whatever award is given to the person who makes the understatement of the year.
The experience is better described by a woman on TikTok who said, “[It] felt like I was being stabbed in the brain.” That’s cheeky. But also accurate.
The generically labeled “swab” is no commonplace bathroom Q-tip fitted with a pillowy apex. It’s an 8-inch nasopharyngeal wand with an instrument affixed to the end that resembles a mascara brush. In one motion, the wand enters your nostril and pushes its way to the back of your head where the frontal sinuses connect to the throat. Trust me when I tell you that you can feel every millimeter. Once the wand reaches its destination, the person administering it will rotate and scrub the sensitive mucous membrane while you involuntarily cry.
But if you, like me, become one of the poor souls who has to get tested for COVID-19, the procedure itself might be the least of your concerns. There are psychological, emotional, and existential hurdles at every turn of the process—from the first cough until the results arrive. And you’ll need more than a high pain threshold to navigate these strains without losing whatever sanity you’ve got left.
My journey began more than a month ago, when I hastily packed a bag and fled my one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan for a renovated 19th-century farmhouse roughly three hours north of the city to escape what I rightly believed would become a city-wide health-care crisis. My friends chided me for “overreacting” as I departed. But little more than a month later, more than 13,000 New Yorkers have died from the coronavirus and the city’s stay-at-home orders have transformed Manhattan’s perpetually bustling streets into the film set for I Am Legend.
I was joined at the farmhouse by two friends, Stephanie and her boyfriend, Erik, because nobody wants to endure the apocalypse alone. A week into self-quarantining, the biggest threat to our collective sanity was the boredom and food shortage at the local grocery store. But then one morning I woke with a violent cough. I tried to hide it when I was around my fellow quarantiners, choking back the tickle in my throat and often dashing out of the room to hack into a pillow.
It’s funny how something that was so innocuous just a handful of weeks ago can spark a sense of both external shame and internal panic. But in our new world, many rules have been inverted. A hug or kiss is now potentially deadly, and physical distance is an expression of love.
Reassurances that “this is just allergies” and would soon pass felt less believable as days wore on and the crippling fatigue set in. A week and a half later, I was hacking around the clock, barely leaving my upstairs bedroom except to retrieve coffee or food. Then Erik developed some gastrointestinal symptoms, which had recently been associated with COVID-19. The whole house grew uneasy until Stephanie broke down and called the New York State Coronavirus Hotline. They suggested we all get tested immediately.
Two days later, we made the 30-minute trek to an Albany drive-thru testing center. Stephanie and Erik drove in one vehicle, and I followed closely behind in another. It took a lot of courage to crank that car. Which is a reminder that courage looks a lot different in a global pandemic.
My author friend Annie Downs often reminds me that courage is not competitive. It’s relative only to you. Whenever we display small acts of courage, there’s a tendency to name a freedom fighter or recount the story of a firefighter who rescued a child from a burning building. It’s a way of minimizing whatever action for us looks most courageous in the moment. Instead, Annie has challenged me to stop comparing and be my “best brave.”
We’re all having to do a lot of hard things right now, which require exerting courage in microdoses. The bravest thing you can do might be getting out of bed and making eggs. It might be pretending you’re semi-competent at homeschooling your 8-year-old. It might mean trying your best to answer our teenager’s question about why bad things happen. Or it might mean giving yourself permission to release the tears you’ve been holding back because you’re trying to appear strong for your spouse, partner, or kids. For me, in that moment, my “best brave” was simply putting the car into drive.
The entrance to the testing center was nothing more than a few government-issued SUVs and a gaggle of soldiers in tan camouflage fatigues holding signs that shouted in all-caps, “KEEP YOUR WINDOWS UP.” My blood pressure began to spike as my car grinded to a stop. A masked health-care worker approached my vehicle to cross-check the information on my driver’s license, which was pressed against the tightly sealed window. Once my identity was verified, they waved me through.
I then snaked between rows of plastic orange cones, passing through military checkpoints by turns. At last, I neared a small makeshift tent city, dotted with white-tarped structures and government-issued SUVs with blacked-out windows. Soldiers directed the vehicle into four parallel lanes like a mega car-wash in the suburbs.
My stomach churned as my wet hands fondled the leather steering wheel. To my right, a middle-aged man with grayish skin coughed viciously, his head snapping forward with each expulsion. To my left, a woman who I estimated to be at least 60 years old sobbed for reasons I don’t want to consider. Her eyes met mine, and like a wave, her unbridled emotion invaded my cabin.
It’s funny how witnessing one human display emotion—even if that human is a total stranger—can grant you permission to release your own. I’ve never met CNN host Erin Burnett or the widow of a coronavirus victim that Burnett interviewed earlier this month. But when those two women choked back their tears on air, it gave me permission to cry alongside them. When a friend of mine who is on immunosuppressants to control his HIV confessed his terror at catching COVID-19, I felt free to disclose my fears to him, too. A pop-up center where people are being tested for a life-threatening virus is a cauldron of emotion, and mine threatened to boil over too.
“I’m bordering on a panic attack, and I don’t know why,” I texted to Stephanie.
“Same. I’m really sorry that you’re alone,” she responded.
“It helps that I can see your car. I feel like crying for some reason,” I replied.
“Me too,” Stephanie typed back. “It’s real now.”
Real. Yes, that’s the word I was looking for. This whole experience was making COVID-19 real. Much has been said about how HIPAA restrictions preventing filming hospitals have made the pandemic seem so far away. We are shown statistics and scientific data rather than the gray faces of perishing patients. And this has a distancing effect. It makes the whole ordeal feel almost imaginary. But then you blink and you’re driving through a makeshift military zone peering through glass at coughing and crying people, some of whom you know could die in the coming weeks without even the grace of their weeping friends and family. And that’s, well, just about as real as it gets.
Social distancing is saving our lives right now. But it has a shadow side too. By distancing ourselves from each other, we're also distanced from the devastation. The news is a proxy, helping us contain the pandemic inside of a non-threatening screen in our pockets or affixed to our living room walls. The digitization of this disease has allowed us to abstract the experience, transforming it into a series of blurs and lines instead of clear faces of loved ones and neighbors. It is happening around us rather than to us.
My face fell into my hands, and my body shook. This was the second time I had cried since leaving Manhattan. The first was when I learned my 31-year-old friend Laura contracted COVID-19 and was placed on a ventilator in ICU where she still fights for her life some 20 days later. The second was sitting idle in that testing center. Both of those events overwhelmed me by forcing me to draw near to a tragedy that had felt so far-off.
My car finally entered the numbered tent devoted to my lane. It resembled a scene from a low-budget science fiction film. Everyone inside wore full body suits, latex gloves, masks, and face shields. Four women feverishly worked on a wobbly table to process a disorganized mountain of samples sealed in plastic bags.
At a health-care worker’s request, I lowered my window a few inches. In a gentle tone, the woman lifted the “swab” and tried her best to prepare me for what was about to be inserted into my face. I don’t remember what she said other than that the procedure would take about 30 seconds. I was too distracted by sight of the medical utensil, which felt to me, in that moment, to be roughly the size of a toddler’s arm. And then in one motion, she administered the wand, while she stared at her wrist watch so that she could make it to the… very… last… second.
And just like that, it’s done.
I rolled my window back up, and the woman motioned for me to exit. A printed piece of paper the size of an index-card was inserted under my windshield explaining that I should receive my results in 48 hours. It took almost a week instead.
The psychological trauma of waiting for the results is far worse than the physical pain from collecting the sample. Your mind generates all kinds of terrible futures as you wait. In some, I died. In others, I survived but had transmitted the virus to friends who then died.
I eventually received my results. I’m one of the lucky ones. “Negative,” it said.
But waiting is just a part of our world now, though. We’re waiting for the curve to flatten. Waiting for our friends to recover. Waiting for a vaccine to be developed, or at least a treatment to be approved. Waiting for the day when we can finally leave our homes and re-establish the routines we didn’t know we loved until they vanished. Some are waiting for the day when life will return to the way it used to be, and the rest of us are waiting for those people to accept that the old world is never coming back.
—Jonathan Merritt is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and author of Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words are Vanishing—and How We Can Revive Them.