I’m going to get this out of the way up front: I don’t like needles, never have and have been known to get woozy to the point of feeling like I’m going to faint when getting bloodwork done at the doctor’s office (just the word “bloodwork” makes me feel kind of queasy). So, I understand if someone—anyone—who has the same anti-phlebotomy issues I do would be less than overjoyed about taking a voluntary test that involves—to paraphrase the Pink Floyd song—”just a little pinprick” and the possibility of feeling “a little sick.”
What I’m talking about here is the COVID-19 antibody (or serology) test, which first made a cameo in New York State in late April, when the virus was still felling hundreds of New Yorkers a day and the state was in desperate need of a deus ex machina to help figure out who had the virus and when. The idea was that you would have some blood drawn to see whether you had the COVID antibodies in your bloodstream, and if you did, it rendered you safe—to a point. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said that there’s no evidence that having the COVID antibodies present in your system makes you immune to the virus. So it’s not a perfect scenario.
Whereas back then, the test was only really administered to essential and frontline workers, these days, it’s available to pretty much anyone in New York (it helps greatly if you have health insurance, and even with insurance, it could cost you $70, if your plan doesn’t cover it). If you’re worried that there won’t be a test site near you, fear not: If you’re based in Saratoga Springs, there are more than 50 testing sites within a reasonable drive from most locations in the city. That’s better odds than your local Walmart having the soft toilet paper brand you’ve been craving throughout quarantine.
So, what do you need to do to get the antibody test? Not much, really. When I originally signed up for it, I started off by doing a quick telehealth session with a nurse at my local doctor’s office. I was then OKed for the COVID-19 nasal swab test, which involved me driving through a mobile test site—similar to the McDonald’s drive-thru but with nurses “taking my order” in hazmat suits via my two nostrils. It put me out of my comfort zone for a grand total of three seconds and made me, momentarily, wonder how far back by nose stretched up into my head. (Anecdotally, I’ve heard that some people react to it differently or more adversely; one friend I talked to referred to it as a “lobotomy,” but that’s a bit of hyperbole, if you ask me.) A few days later, I got a call from a nurse saying that I was negative for the virus. In a way, it felt good knowing that all of the hand sanitizing, social distancing, masking and constant paranoia over the previous few months had paid off. But I wasn’t done just yet.
The next step was obtaining access to the antibody test, which I needed preauthorization to get. (I got sign-off at the same time I scheduled by nasal swab test; it just needed to come afterwards.) The idea behind doing it was, if I didn’t have COVID right now per the schnoz test, the antibody test ensured that I either never had it, period; or had it at some point and my immune system flicked it away like a dead fly. Maybe what I thought was a nasty cold in February or March was actually the real McCoy! Most importantly, getting the antibody test would ensure that, at least to some extent, my body would have some line of defense against the virus were it to come knocking again—or before Johnson & Johnson, Regeneron or some other national pharma company struck platinum and produced the highly COVID-ted vaccine (yes, there’s room for a good pun in all of this still). It just so happened that I had my annual physical scheduled for late June, so I made sure, with my doctor’s approval, that the phlebotomist was able to draw blood not only for my cholesterol and liver function tests, but also to check my system for the COVID antibodies. After getting poked and prodded for a little while (you know the drill), I was sent off to the lab for the big moment.
When the nurse finally called my name, I asked politely, as I always do, to lay down when I’m getting my blood drawn so as not to do my best impression of backstage at an Eagles concert, circa 1972 (i.e. pass out with the needle still in my arm). The nurse was in a great mood—she’d emceed her cousin’s wedding the day before—and though I did get that queasy sensation and had to stay a few extra ticks while it passed, I made it out alive once again. Now, all I need to do is wait for my results, which are going to take 3-5 days to come back.
If you are worried that you have or had COVID-19, do yourself a favor and go get tested. New York has done the most testing of any state in the union; on June 19 alone, more than 10,000 people were tested, and that’s down from its peak on May 26, when more than 34,000 were tested. The worst thing you can do is sit around your house, watch Contagion on Netflix and blow the equivalent of the plot all over your loved ones and put them in danger. And like I said in my other piece, now is a better time than any to get tested; the region is in the middle of phase three and well on its way to phase four of its reopening plan, and if the virus does have a “second wave” this fall, as some experts have posited, you’ll be ahead of the potentially re-unflattened curve.
Until then, I’m going to be awaiting my second round of test results and daydreaming about the day when another nurse jabs me in the arm with the COVID vaccine, and I get a simultaneous wave of nausea and peace of mind.