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COVID test brought sense of control

Over the last several months, I’ve frequently stated, “I don’t personally know anyone who’s tested positive for coronavirus.” A week ago last Tuesday, that changed.

A late evening call from a neighbor started with, “I am so sorry...” We recently relocated, and she was a new friend in her early 70s, a retired nurse. She had tested positive for COVID-19 that very day. Her only symptom was a lost sense of taste.

My husband and I spent time with her the preceding week — we arrived masked, but we had to request that she and her husband put on their masks. My spouse is immune compromised and often asks maskless people to don a face covering. He has developed a respectfully imperative approach to doing that. It was a bit awkward because we were entering their home and we all knew better than to have inside-the-house, direct exposure. In response to their invitation, we had made an impromptu risk/reward calculation.

The evening call, five days later, came just as the CDC put out its new dictum indicating people directly exposed to someone testing positive did not need to get tested. When I realized that we, as “exposed” people, fell under those new guidelines, I suspected we may have difficulty arranging to be tested. We did. We made calls to our various health care providers. One response was, “Keep in touch, and if she develops more symptoms, especially a cough, we could order tests for you.”

The testing that I naively thought was readily available if you wanted/needed was not. When getting a health provider referral did not work, we downloaded all the testing sites within reasonable driving distance of our Portland address that popped up on a google search. There were more than a dozen venues, but each site had different criteria for getting tested. Variations included sponsoring organization, cost, protocol, reason for wanting a test, wait time to get the test and wait time to get the results. There was only one venue that had no appointment parameters, no qualifying criteria — it was a drive-through test site a half hour away.

We entered and exited in less than 15 minutes, and it was professionally staffed. The nasal swab test was free and managed by a local teaching hospital; it was quick and completely tolerable. Results were emailed to us the next day. The “not detected” line in that email was a relief, of course, but I recognize it only meant that on that particular day I/we did not have the virus and that self-quarantining for up to 14 days was still advisable. I also recognize that experience will improve my mask-wearing, social distancing, hand-washing vigilance.

But the key takeaway was the unexpected feeling of reclaimed control I got from knowing I could get tested — and where. It made everything feel a little less chaotic.

If pandemic policymakers were to ask me, I would remind them about the role of lost control, especially for older adults. I would say to those who are trying to manage this: Make the testing process readily accessible for anyone who wants it. Once a self-test is on the market, make it universally available and without cost. Start paying more attention to indoor air quality. Grab control of all this. Toss chaos.

Sharon Jonson is a retired health educator. Reach her at sharjohn99@gmail.com.