Public health experts say expanded coronavirus testing is critical to safely reopen the economy and prevent a second wave of infections. Parts of Florida like Hillsborough County are offering free testing to everyone.
Health News Florida's Stephanie Colombini recently got tested at one of the county's drive-thru sites, even though she had no symptoms. She shares her experience.
My journey began a few days before my test when I contacted Hillsborough County to schedule an appointment, or at least tried to.
My initial attempts to call were met with busy signals and a menu that wouldn’t redirect me to testing when I’d dial the right key. After more than 20 attempts, I gave up in frustration and tried an hour later. This time I got through to someone quickly.
The first woman I spoke with asked some questions about whether I was involved in health care and reiterated that the test was free and didn’t require health insurance. She forwarded me to a scheduler and warned they may be a wait.
About 45 minutes of mind-numbing hold music later, I was connected with the specialist and secured a 9 a.m. Friday slot at Raymond James Stadium. This location is drive-thru-only, but there are three other testing sites that also allow walk-ups.
I signed my boyfriend Shean up too. He's been working at a grocery store since losing his server job at the start of the shutdown and also wanted a test.
The morning of our test we fed the dogs (Hazel and Frank, essential information) and got ready to go.
We made sure we had what we needed for the test: our face masks, IDs and the confirmation code emailed to us after we signed up.
During the drive, Shean and I talked about why we were doing this. We're both young and healthy, and we know that doesn't make us invincible to COVID-19 but the threat of us getting severe symptoms is still low.
"It's less of a health concern for me and more of a guilt concern I guess," I told Shean, who nodded in agreement.
I have to go into the radio station once a week and Shean is constantly exposed to strangers at his job. And while we've been doing our best to stay home, we'd be lying if we said we were perfect.
“I guess if I found out I had it I would just feel terrible that I spread it, potentially, to other people,” I said.
“What are you thinking about in terms of the grocery store?” I asked Shean.
“Well, if I had it, I definitely wouldn’t be working anymore, and that puts more of a financial burden on me,” he said.
We pulled into the stadium and were directed onto a large field where we weaved through lanes of cones that led to a big white tent.
A friendly woman wearing a blue BayCare shirt and face shield approached our vehicle. We laughed as we struggled to spell our names through our face masks – she had to deal with that all day. She checked our names off a list and then we joined a few dozen other cars in line.
Health workers in head-to-toe protective gear were able to handle several cars at once so it moved pretty quickly. After 15 minutes or so, we were under the tent and it was our turn.
The test itself took maybe 30 seconds.
Another woman approached my window and instructed me to remove my mask. She explained she was about to swab the back of my throat for a few seconds on each side and warned it could be uncomfortable.
Shean and I had braced ourselves to get sticks up our noses, which I told the woman, who laughed and explained they had run out of nasal swabs that morning so switched to throat swabs – we were not complaining.
Another employee gave us paperwork about getting our results. She told us the test would go to Quest Diagnostics and we'd hear from the lab in about three days.
"Alright we did it!” I said to Shean as we pulled away. “What do you think?”
“It wasn't bad,” he said. I called him out for having a couple tears streaming down his face.
“Yeah, the throat swab definitely hit the gag reflex pretty hard,” he laughed.
We left feeling really good about what we just did. We knew we were doing our part to help public health workers identify where this virus is and isn't.
Three days turned into four. We had set up online patient accounts with the lab, which you have to do in order to view your results. The Quest Diagnostics website said results typically take four or five days, not three, so we had lowered our expectations a bit.
That afternoon Shean got an email. His results were in: negative.
“Hooray!” I said as we read the results on the computer. “Corona free,” he smiled.
“Are you relieved?” I asked.
“Yeah, I didn't think I had it but it’s still nice to know,” he said.
I wanted my results and was starting to get pretty frustrated. It took another day for mine to come in.
I also tested negative, but that was less comforting than expected.
"Every day that went by that we didn't hear just sort of made the whole test all that less meaningful,” I vented to Shean. “It felt like, well we didn't have coronavirus five days ago apparently, but do we have it now?"
I'm still glad I got tested, and would recommend others do so. At least I know for a period of time I wasn't infected or putting others at risk.
"I guess the only real way to know for sure is rapid results that tell you on the spot, and frequent testing,” I wondered aloud. “You know, maybe I'd have to go back in a couple weeks. And am I going to do that, where I’m calling for an hour and driving to the stadium? I mean, there’s a lot more room for improvement."
And the state is working on it. Testing has already expanded significantly since the start of the outbreak and will have to continue to do so.
And I have to give credit to the county employees I encountered in the process, from phone operators to testers. They were all very kind and doing the best job they could with the resources available to them.
But this experience has reinforced the need for me to keep up with proper distancing and cleaning, because for now, it's the best way to know I'm safe.
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