Our county is offering free testing so I thought I would get some use out of my tax dollars and go. Our family has been careful during the quarantine, but we have had a few social dates with friends in which we were in close contact. Our friends have also been careful and the events were mostly outside, but nonetheless there is some elevated risk beyond what one encounters with running essential errands.
Perhaps we shouldn’t have socialized? Well, I’ve felt from the outset of this pandemic that complete isolation and shut down is neither sustainable nor practical. Refined social distancing should have been our MO from day one, in combination with testing and contact tracing. People need to be together in real space and real time. Just as marriages rarely work long-distance, neither do friendships or professional relationships. Online connections are a useful supplement to real-life interactions, but they will never replace them. Our family decided that the rewards of careful socializing were worth the risks, especially as we are in excellent health, with no underlying conditions.
Nonetheless, it’s prudent to get checked every few weeks. If we have contracted the virus we should then totally isolate, so we don’t spread it to anyone else. So I went to the testing site. The first thing you do is wait in line:
The line didn’t take long and people were polite and kept their distance. Masks are required. I was glad I had chosen one of the saliva tests. The woman behind me had taken the nasal swap test a few weeks ago and she said “I’ve delivered two babies and that nasal test was far more painful.”
When I got closer I looked back at the line:
I spent about 10 minutes in line, so not bad. As I was waiting I filled out an online medical form that ended with a request to input a test kit number. When I got to the front of the line a volunteer gave me the test kit and showed me the number. You can see part of it under my thumb.
I entered that number and then proceeded to take the test. The test involved spitting into a tube. It’s not a small tube, and it took quite a bit of spitting to fill it up.
The challenge lies in getting the bubbles out. So I sat under a tent with about seven other people (socially distanced of course), each of us spitting into the tube, and then tapping it against our knees or the chairs, trying to work the bubbles out. Spit, spit, tap, tap, tap. I made a joke that we were all performing some kind of avant-garde theater piece. Everyone chuckled and then got back to spit, spit, tap, tap, tap . . .
When my tube was full I gave it to a proctor. He sealed it up, we doubled checked the numbers, and off it went to get processed. Results usually come between one and three days.
It was a grand total of 40 minutes of my time, and well worth it. Aside from gathering some crucial intel about whether I should continue socializing or not, I gained a deeper respect for our medical professionals and a more realistic feeling for the scope of the pandemic. Actually being there is a lot different than reading about it on the news, and I’m grateful to the volunteers and medical professionals who ran the operation, as well as the police. They were all unfailingly polite and the experience was calm and efficient.
But the test only tells you where you are in that moment. With contact tracing running in tandem with the testing it isn’t that effective.
From now until I get my results in a few days I plan to isolate, but then what? Assuming I test negative that doesn’t mean I can resume life as normal, and I’m not sure our friends will get tested, so there’s still a real danger I could catch it from them. Or, we could all get tested on, say, Monday, isolate until we get our results on Wednesday, and if they’re all negative we could socialize as normal on Friday, but only if we isolate completely between the time we get the results and the time we start socializing again, which is virtually impossible given that we’re out and about as the state reopens. Only with very precise contact tracing could the testing be fully effective, but convincing individualistic Americans to follow contact tracing is not going to happen.
The central problem is a lack of organization and leadership on a national and local level, combined with a systemic anti-intellectualism and exceptionalism attitude from Americans. These faults expose why we have fared so badly with COVID-19. I’m grateful for our medical professionals; they are truly heros, but it’s frustrating to see America fail at something we have the resources to combat effectively. I admit some culpability with this as I have engaged in socializing, but I’ve been careful and followed the scientific recommendations for social distancing, and I stand firm that complete shut downs are a terrible idea. The fact that we now have 30 million people unemployed and our national debt has doubled bears this out. From the beginning we should have had widely-available testing and contact tracing, and we should have engaged in rigorous and refined social distancing, but I don’t think we should have completely shut down. No doubt our economy and collective mental health would have still taken a hit as social distancing necessitates emptier stores and restaurants, etc, but I suspect it would have been far less severe than what we are experiencing now.
Americans are always running at the mouth about how we’re the “greatest country in the world.” Anyone with a modicum of intelligence knows this isn’t true–we are mediocre at best on almost every metric of societal success (e.g., infrastructure, public health, student achievement, wealth disparity, etc), and yet people continue to repeat this lie over and over. All I can say is that if it were true the experience I had today should have been in place in January, and contact tracing should be running in tandem with the tests. The fact that it’s not evinces the grim possibility that the 122,000 American lives that have been lost in the last three months may be just the beginning.