As I stopped my car at the top of the winding access road to the mall, I admired the views of the mountains to the west. I am always amazed by the beauty and incongruity of the view of a mountain range from the parking lot of a mall. I proceeded slowly, hesitantly to what was in prior lifetimes the entrance to a well-known department store but is now — due to COVID-19’s impact on in-person shopping — an emergency care clinic. Cars were scattered around the parking lot, as if each were maintaining their own degree of social distance, and it was raining lightly, a warm grey December Thursday, Christmas Eve. I put my mask on and got out of the car.
When I entered the emergency care clinic, I was greeted by a friendly receptionist who asked me why I was there. I told her I needed a COVID test and that the clinic was listed as a testing site along with several others in Ulster Country. She took my name and cell number and told me I should wait in my car; she would call when the doctor was ready.
As I walked back to the car, I noted that only a year ago this place would be bustling with last-minute shoppers, enjoying the festive atmosphere in the mall and the comradery of their fellow shoppers. I wondered if the receptionist, doctors, and nurses inside had similar thoughts, or was the history of this place already a vanquished memory.
Early the evening before, I had returned home from a road trip with my dogs and within minutes received this text: “Tested positive today for COVID-19 via rapid test — not sure it’s accurate. Did a PCR test to confirm. In the meantime, since we went hiking on Monday, you should probably get tested, just in case. No symptoms so far, by the way.”
While I waited in my car in the mall parking lot, I tried not to think about COVID. I thought about my friends, my dogs, my ex-girlfriends, dumplings (pan sautéed, not steamed), the new standing desk I got myself for Christmas, online dating, the most recent episode of the sci-fi show I was binging, whether or not the chocolate-dipped strawberries I ordered would arrive before Christmas. But my mind kept returning to COVID, like a baseball player who realizes he tried to steal a base a bit too late and then decides to double back. It was Thursday, Christmas Eve, and I had been exposed on Monday; still no symptoms of the virus.
An hour went by, then two, and I decided to go back inside to check my status. I was told there were still ten people ahead of me.
I decided to go get lunch at the food court in the mall. The only open option was Chinese, and I got sautéed vegetables and fried rice cooked to order (they no longer offered buffet service). I paid the cashier, whose mask was loose and dipping down below her nose. I looked around the expansive food court as I walked toward the exit — only two other people were there, huddled together at a table as if bracing for a barrage from the invisible, deadly enemy hovering in the air. I ate the food in my car and waited another 1.5 hours before the receptionist called me in.
Inside the clinic, I stood in line another half-hour; if you’ve been counting, that’s four hours in total. The nurse called me up to the sliding glass window she was seated behind. She seemed friendly but frazzled. When I said that I had been exposed to COVID a little over 72 hours ago, this was her response:
“Well, you realize that you’ll probably get a false negative. You need at least five to seven days for there to be enough viral load in your system for it to come back positive.”
Actually … no, I hadn’t realized this. I responded that I had been waiting for a test for the last four hours and I would appreciate being tested. She replied that they were very busy, that they were not a state-run testing site, rather they were a private clinic that also attended to non-COVID emergencies, and therefore I needed to have symptoms or have been exposed a minimum of five days prior to the test.
I took a deep breath, and through my eyes to hers, telepathically, I replied, “I was not aware there was a difference between state-run testing sites and privately-run testing sites, in terms of prerequisites for testing. Are most people aware of this? I saw your clinic listed on the website and that’s why I’m here. I was encouraged by the almost constant television commercials telling me I should get tested often, even if I don’t have symptoms.” Incidentally, the Ulster Country website has the following language: “privately-run test providers and labs may establish specific criteria which allows them to better meet capacity with increased demand”; which now I understand to mean that private clinics can raise the bar for testing as high as they need to.
But my vocal cords moved and my mouth actually said, “Please make an exception. I waited four hours in my car on Christmas Eve.” She gave me a form to complete and I was finally admitted. A nurse handed me a sterile swab and told me I needed to insert it deeply into my nostrils and twirl it.
And over the next several days, while I waited for the test results, I thought about how a crisis had become a catastrophe in this country.
Here’s the thing: This is the third COVID-19 test I’ve taken since June, and it seems to me that nothing has changed. A surge in demand causes a near-breakdown in the system. Clinics handle this by triaging COVID patients based on arbitrary criteria that change daily. On one hand, we are told to get tested often. On the other hand, we wait for hours in our parked cars and then are told we can’t be tested because we don’t yet have enough viral load, two words I never thought would become part of the vernacular. This combination of poor organizational infrastructure for testing and inconsistent and confusing communication about testing — from both public health officials as well as the healthcare industry — is only partly to blame.
Americans should also take a long, hard look in the mirror. Millions of Americans traveled over the holidays, despite the very loud-and-clear warnings, and despite clear precedent of resulting surges. I heard one woman interviewed by a reporter at an airport: “I’m not very proud of myself, but I haven’t seen my family for so long.” Seriously? For so long? I thought about immigrants who came to this country to start a new life; hardworking Americans who haven’t seen their families for years, maybe decades, who opt to send money back home and use the rest of their paycheck for groceries and rent rather than an airline ticket. Then I thought about the choices we are being asked to make: don’t travel, don’t gather with your family this one time, and you can prevent a surge and save lives; you can show gratitude and love for those who are already exhausted caring for the sick and dying.
My test result came back in less than 72 hours, which is impressive given Christmas was over this period. The first thing I saw when I logged into the portal was: “COVID-19 PCR – NEGATIVE – December 24th.” In the meantime, my friend who had tested positive — the one who had sent me the warning text — still hadn’t heard back on her PCR test. The next day she found out she was also negative. The rapid test that had set everything in motion a week ago had been inaccurate.
Now I am waiting again. for my turn to be vaccinated. I wonder how history will view us Americans. One would think that the US achieved its quota of devastating blunders with the botched rollout of testing, but it looks like it will exceed that quota. The federal government has once again abdicated a central role and opted for the same flawed state-by-state model for vaccine distribution as testing. Operation Warp Speed has shifted into horse-and-buggy gear, falling short of its targeted 2020 vaccinations by over 85 percent. Given performance to date, precedent with respect to testing, and the daunting logistics of a national rollout of multiple two-dose vaccines, the question of whether the country will be redeemed by an organized, efficient distribution process may already be moot.