What if Getting Tested for COVID Had Been This Easy in March?
Just a few months ago, it was next to impossible to get tested for COVID 19 in New York City. Now, it’s as easy as buying a pastry at the bakery.
Cravings for a cherry turnover overwhelmed me late one afternoon in May. Truth be told, I’ve been getting one every other day or so from a bakery in my Brooklyn neighborhood. Like everyone else lucky enough to still have a job, I’ve been working from home during this nightmare. Fresh air and pastries break up the sense of stale confinement that comes as the weather gets nicer and the afternoons press on.
Out on the stoop, a neighbor who was coming in from a run told me that purely on a whim, as he jogged through Cobble Hill, he decided to stop at an urgent care clinic (CITY MD) and get tested for COVID-19. It took less than an hour.
Just a few days earlier, I’d watched as Governor Andrew Cuomo got his nose swabbed on TV during one of the daily briefings, part of an effort to encourage New Yorkers to get the test. Nonetheless, it was hard for me to wrap my head around the idea — that just like that — I could walk into an urgent-care clinic and find out if I was either infected or had antibodies.
Testing locations like CITY MD offer both the PCR swab test — which identifies whether or not a person has the active virus — and the Serum Antibody IgG blood test — which potentially identifies antibodies created by a person to fight the COVID-19 infection.
Although clinic staff did ask for insurance, testing is essentially free. According to the CITY MD website, the clinic is not collecting copayments for COVID-19 related visits although their may be lab expenses. Other city testing sites are free of all costs now.
For any New Yorker who has followed the news, set the clock by daily press briefings, knew people who got sick or grew accustomed to falling asleep to the endless wail of distant ambulances, there will always be the maddening question as to why diagnostic testing for COVID-19 was not readily available sooner than it was. Common sense dictates that widespread testing and contact tracing should have been a reality months ago.
As recently as a few weeks ago, back when hundreds of New Yorkers were dying daily, the city’s department of health had issued guidance for healthcare providers instructing them to only test patients displaying COVID-19 symptoms who were sick enough for hospitalization. That’s how difficult it was to get the test and in hindsight, it’s infuriating that was the case.
Readily available COVID 19 diagnostic testing today does not make up for the abject ineptitude displayed by national leaders who dismissed reams of intelligence and warnings from global epidemiologists that the highly contagious COVID-19 was a grave threat to the United States. Why was the mass production of COVID diagnostic tests not prioritized when alarms from Europe and China were blaring?
Sunshine and a cool spring breeze caressed me as I walked up Court Street to the clinic. There were maybe four masked people waiting. Among them, a man and woman who appeared to be in their mid-thirties.
The woman is starting a masters program in social work at New York University (NYU) in fall 2020, she said. I shared that I work at a college in the city and we discussed some of the challenges of distance learning.
“I really don’t want to experience my first semester at NYU remotely, “ she said. “I mean I’m paying a lot of money for the full experience of being on that campus.”
We also talked about how some states down south had been so quick to go back to normal, despite warnings such moves could lead to further spread.
“I’m from the south, near Savannah,” she said in a resigned tone.
“Well, I’m from just outside Birmingham, and the number cases down there have been through the roof,” I said.
After a few minutes, someone from the clinic wearing scrubs opened the door and ushered the couple in. I made my way up to the glass door and stood waiting, checking my phone. By now, there were five people behind me. A few passers by stopped and inquired what it was we were waiting on while others looked at us as if they thought perhaps we were not well.
Soon enough, a few people carrying a few pieces of paper in their hands left the clinic and. Seconds later, the woman wearing scrubs was back at the door and telling me to come inside.
“COVID-testing?” she asked.
“Yes indeed,” answering as if I were at a polling station on election day, eager to cast my vote and participate in the process.
After I filled out the electronic forms on a kiosk which also scanned my driver’s license, I handed a woman at the front desk my insurance card and was told to have a seat. In the waiting room there were maybe three or four other people.
After I was brought into an examination room and had my blood pressure checked, there was short wait for the doctor who would administer the tests. On the phlebotomy tray was the testing equipment — a blood vial, a butterfly needle and tourniquet as well as another vial with a very long q-tip-like device with a white swab.
“So this is the swab that everyone’s been talking about,” I said to the doctor, after she’d come in and we’d said hello.
“Yep, that’s it,” she said. “Which one do you want to do first?”
The two tests took around three minutes, tops. As I checked out, they gave me instructions on how to visit a patient portal where I could view the results in two to three days.
For a few seconds after I was back outside, a sense of heartbreak and anger came back. Millions of New Yorkers should have been getting this test months ago. I couldn’t help but ponder how things might have turned out had diagnostic testing been as easy to obtain in March as it is clearly is today. Could we have snuffed this monster out? There are so many what if’s to consider when processing the trauma and misery of this still mysterious and lethal pandemic and the new normal we’re embarking on now.
Then, I was off to the bakery to get that turnover and for just a few sweet minutes, put the horror we’ve been living through on pause.
Update: New York City now offers more than 150 testing sites.