This weekend, I was one of the more than 11,000 Tennesseans who wended their way through parking lots to get a swab shoved up my nose for a COVID-19 test. The state created these testing sites for anyone who wanted to get tested — whether they were having symptoms or felt they might be an asymptomatic carrier of the virus.
On Saturday, I pulled into line at 10:24 a.m.
At 12:57 p.m. I drove away, my eyes still watering a bit.
The line was obviously slow, but no one acted impatiently as they idled. I saw folks reading, heard their radios playing, softly, and even had to avert my eyes from a few couples necking — we’re all teenagers in a lockdown.
When the line of vehicles finally deposited me with the healthcare workers, I found them welcoming — friendly really. Though I could see only their eyes, I sensed a smile behind the masks. Clipboard in hand, my interviewer asked for my name, address, email address, my birth date, whether I had insurance (there is no cost for the test, but they want to know in case I tested positive for the virus), whether I have or have had symptoms, and whether I have been around people with the virus or with symptoms of it. No was my answer to those questions.
Then she tucked the sheet of paper with my answers under the windshield wiper and waved me forward to the testers, who were also welcoming, but a little more matter of fact. They were very specific about what the swabbing experience would feel like: “This is going to be uncomfortable,” she said very politely, “you may feel like sneezing or coughing, and your eyes will probably water, but these feelings should go away with a few minutes.”
She pushed a long-handled swab up my nostril until it couldn’t go further, twirled it like Tiger after hitting a really good shot, and, before I could blink, up the other one. Wanting to demonstrate my manliness, I did not sneeze, cough, and, this is my story and I am sticking to it, my eyes did not water. The swab goes into a hard plastic sleeve, we’re done. Thank you, move along now.
Monday at 4:28 p.m., my phone rings. Another nice woman tells me her name, identifies that she is calling from the county health department and asks for my date of birth. I accurately recalled that signature date, and she informed me I tested negative.
So, I did not have the virus this past weekend. Yeah…
The test does not tell me whether I’ve had the virus and have the antibodies, and it certainly does not indicate that I won’t get it today, or tomorrow or any day after that.
One test avails little, but not nothing
Don’t get me wrong. I am happy that I took the test, helped our health professionals gather more data about where the virus may or may not be, and am comforted that Tennessee has begun to build a real infrastructure of testing.
But 11,000 tests are nothing but an experiment and even that push of tests just took the total number of Tennesseans tested for COVID-19 to about 100,000 as of Monday afternoon. So, six weeks into this public health crisis we have tested less than 1.5% of our population. As of Monday, there are 7,238 cases of the virus, or 7.2% of those tested.
We are going to have to get a lot better at this for most of us to feel good about “getting back to normal.” Which we will. Our health professionals will improve the system for getting tested — adding things like pre-registering for tests so that data collection doesn’t take five minutes, automated notification of negative results so that professionals have adequate time to counsel those who test positive about next steps, using the testing process to distribute masks with clear instructions about why everyone should wear a mask when out in public, and many other ways that what is inherently a cumbersome process can be improved and used to accomplish public health goals.
Everyone has a concealed carry permit
What strikes me about this kind of crisis is that the onus on fixing the problem, on being our brothers’ keeper, is on us as individuals and not on Gov. Bill Lee or any of our other well-meaning, but inevitably overwhelmed, elected leaders.
The metaphor for me is that in a viral pandemic each of us has a concealed carry permit for a deadly weapon. What we should appreciate about the folks who have pistol permits is they, almost universally, understand the rules and ethic of concealed carry. They go to school, they train, they understand the responsibility they have.
I don’t think that the people gathering in public to shout support for their First Amendment rights to assemble have done that kind of homework and preparation. If so, they would all be wearing a mask so the droplets from their shouts don’t carry, and they carry much farther than six feet. According to researchers at M.I.T. those droplets can carry as far as 26 feet from a sneeze, and 16 feet from a cough — I did not see research on how far a shout could spew virus, but I'm willing to bet it is more than six feet.
Long way go, and a short time to get there
Most Tennesseans will be out from under “safer at home” rules by May 1, but as citizens we are woefully unprepared for that freedom. And our health system and professionals are not ready to deal with our lack of responsibility.
We must be responsible when our leaders are not. Get a mask, wear it, educate yourself as to what your responsibilities are to those around you.
Frank Daniels, a 2012 inductee of the NC Journalism Hall of Fame, is president of FW Publishing, the parent company of HomePage Media Group, Nashville Scene, Nashville Post, and Nfocus Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.