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What It’s Like to Get a COVID-19 Test, and Why You Should Get One Right Now (Opinion)

'Saratoga Living' took the few minutes required to get the 'nasal swab' test for COVID-19. Here's what you need to know about it.

A nurse performing a nasal swab test on a driver at a mobile COVID testing unit.

I’ve been conscientiously wearing a face mask in public since New York Governor Andrew Cuomo put through the statewide order; and have been social distancing from my friends, family and all manner of strangers since mid-March. It’s been particularly difficult having to do so from my parents; having to set up a card table for them to sit six feet away from our main dining room table (and vice versa, when we visit their house) is something that will never feel normal. It’s the pits, really, but it’s for everybody’s safety.

In the last week and change, though, I admit I’ve slipped a little bit in my conscientiousness. This is partly due to all of the positive momentum behind the Capital Region’s (and the rest of the state’s) phased reopening plan and the positive data that Governor Cuomo keeps on reporting during his daily press briefings. Just today (June 15), Cuomo announced that the total number of hospitalizations and COVID deaths (a three-day average) had reached their lowest point since March 20 (the beginning of the statewide lockdown). The Capital Region is expected to enter phase three this week, which means restaurants and hotels will begin reopening in Saratoga. (Cuomo noted that the quota for socially distanced gatherings had been upped from 10 to 25 for phase three.) In other words, Saratoga will start feeling like it’s Saratoga again, even though there still likely won’t be spectators at Saratoga Race Course this season or much of a summer season at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC).

I can also chalk my slippage in fastidiousness up to “senior moments.” On June 14, my mother-in-law’s car died in the parking lot of a CVS nearby my house, and I had to run over and make sure she was OK. I left the house without a mask on and spent an hour in the CVS parking lot without one on—even coming within three or four feet of the nice AAA attendant who showed up to help her out. (He had a mask on covering only his mouth.) I’ve also been attending outdoor sessions in the parking lot outside of my gym, without a mask on, but a safe six feet away from the person on the mat next to me. (I wore a mask the first day, but realized, after doing my first lap around the building, that breathing fully was essential to finishing the class.) And last weekend, my wife and I attended a peaceful protest in Troy’s Riverfront Park. We both donned masks, but with a grand total of 11,000 people there, it was pretty much impossible to socially distance from everyone. And you’ve got to assume that at least one person there had COVID-19 (maybe more). Maybe that person was asymptomatic.

Peeling another layer off the onion, back in February, my wife and I had been down in New York City, staying in Brooklyn, going to a Broadway show in Manhattan and hanging out with friends in a different part of Brooklyn from where we were staying. Although the first case in New York City wasn’t announced until March 1, it’s since been estimated that an additional 10,700 people already had the virus during the prior month. So, it’s entirely possible that my wife and I were exposed to the virus while we were downstate. We might’ve even had the virus, recovered and didn’t even know it.

So, with all of those what-ifs swirling around, my wife and I decided to get tested. Luckily, we both have health insurance, which goes a long way towards the “access” part of the equation. We both called our community healthcare provider on June 12 and got mixed results. My wife called first, did a short telehealth call over the phone and believed she had been green-lighted to do the test that evening as a walk-in. (This was faulty information; she ended up having to schedule it and got tested today.) I called, did the telehealth checkup—the nurse practitioner asked me if I had been experiencing COVID-like symptoms (I hadn’t/haven’t) and a few other questions—and then I was given a place and time for my test on Monday morning (today). What made my pre-test experience all the more legit was that I started getting overrun with emails and text messages about the impending appointment. I was offered several chances to “opt out”—i.e. chicken out—of the test, ultimately deciding that it was still the right move. The only thing I needed to bring to the testing site was myself—masked this time!—and a picture ID. And I was told, under no circumstances, was I to get out of my car.

So, this morning, I drove up to the testing site—it was at the back of a rather unassuming medical office complex in Latham—and immediately noticed a woman in the general vicinity of the testing site wearing a mask that only covered her mouth, not her nose, in civilian clothing. I hope she’s not the nurse, I thought to myself. She seemed generally uninterested in what was going on ahead of her. What was going on ahead of her? Two nurses, decked out in complete COVID-19 protective gear—latex smocks and gloves, visors, face masks and goggles—were testing people in their cars while I waited in mine. When it was my time for action, the nurse had me roll down my window entirely and tilt my head back. She wielded a plastic bag with a tube in it, which appeared to have some sort of red solution sloshing around in it, that when unscrewed, revealed a long, thin Q-tip-like device, which she then inserted extremely far into both nostrils, touching an area that has likely never been touched before. Since I’ve never had an object that far up my nose before, I can only describe the sensation as mildly disconcerting and uncomfortable, but not painful in the least. I had a little bit of an aftertaste in my mouth as I drove off, but other than that, it took just a few seconds for the test to be completed. And the nurse told me before I left that I’d get a call in three days to figure out whether I had the virus or not. (During my telehealth phone call, I asked to be scheduled for an antibody test, too, but I was informed that I’d need to do the nasal swab test first beforehand. Makes sense, I guess.

Now, I don’t think it’s that pushy to suggest that everyone should try to get tested right now. If you’re sitting there thinking, “Oh, I don’t need to get tested; I feel fine,” remember that you might be asymptomatic and could possibly be infecting others unknowingly. Even some of the people that you love. You wouldn’t want a potentially sick or dying relative on your conscience, right? Another reason you should get tested: because you can. Of the nearly 20 million people that live in New York State, as of June 14, nearly 3 million have already been tested, with more than 380,000 having tested positive for the virus. In Saratoga County, 517 people have tested positive for the virus, whereas in Rensselaer County, where I’m currently based, that number is just a few less at 514. In Albany County, however, that number is a whopping 2,022. And finally, if the infection rate were to climb in the next few weeks and the governor were to impose another partial or full shutdown of the state, your window of opportunity to safely and easily get tested would be closed quickly. Texas, Florida and Arizona have recently hit record highs for new cases. Could New York be next?

Some people might read this and accuse me of being an alarmist. But might I remind you that there are more than two million confirmed cases of COVID in the US, and it has already killed 115,112 people and counting. As the Capital Region continues to reopen and the Saratoga summer unfolds, wouldn’t it be nice to have the peace of mind that you’re clean or have the antibodies? Because, look, if there’s a ghost of a chance that Saratoga Race Course does allow some fans in at some point during the summer, you’ll likely have to prove to the New York Racing Association (NYRA) that you either don’t have COVID or have the antibodies to get in. And you want to get in, right?

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Will Levith

Will Levith is Editorial Director at Saratoga Living and Capital Region Living magazine. He's a native Saratogian and graduate of Saratoga Springs High School. His work has been published by Esquire, Playboy, Condé Nast Traveler, Men's Health, RealClearLife and many others. He lives in Troy with his wife, Laura, and dog, Esopus.

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