(Julia Terbrock/The Washington Post; iStock)

Never before in the course of human events have our noses been so poked, prodded and downright invaded by foreign objects at our own behest. This is the golden age of swabs, meaning we will pay gilded prices for a coronavirus antigen test, the new nose candy, to jab a swab up our nostrils in the comfort of home — though comfort has very little to do with it.

We are rabid for rapid tests. Swabs have become our divining rods.

In this rich, varied nation of ours, one that ostensibly values enterprise and competition, at a moment when swabs have never been more necessary, the number of major domestic manufacturers remains precisely one: Puritan Medical Products. Our swab capital is situated in Piscataquis County, Maine, in the hamlet of Guilford, population around 1,500.

Consider the mighty swab. In homes, an excavator of earwax, an implement for art projects, an applicator and remover of makeup, yet often shoved into the nether regions of some closet, the box — who decided we needed 625 at a time? — amassing dust.

In medicine, swabs are essential diagnostic tools. “If there’s an orifice, someone has a stuck a swab in it,” says Gene Liu, an ear, nose and throat (ENT) physician at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. In forensics, they collect evidence in crime scenes. In technology, they dust circuit boards. Swabs are the epitome of elegant, slender, streamlined design, included in the 2004 Museum of Modern Art exhibit “Humble Masterpieces.” Now they’re the ubiquitous, sneeze-inducing gauge of our physical and emotional well-being. Frequently, they bring us to tears.

Next year, the modern swab turns 100. It is almost as old as beloved, recently departed Betty White who, as fate would have it, was a Q-tips spokeswoman in the 1980s.

Leo Gerstenzang, an immigrant from Poland, is widely credited as the father of the swab. According to lore, his eureka moment came watching his wife, Zuita, cleaning a child with a cotton wad around a toothpick. (So, frankly, she might be the ultimate swabmother).

Gerstenzang marketed them as “Baby Gays,” which morphed into “Q-tips Baby Gays,” the Q for quality, the gays because they made irritable infants happy. In 1962, the company was acquired by Chesebrough-Ponds, and eventually became part of Unilever, the global consumer goods company. There was serious money in Big Swab. Gerstenzang resided at New York’s sumptuous Pierre Hotel on Fifth Avenue and his name adorned a science library at Brandeis University.

(By contrast, Kary Mullis, awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work on polymerase chain reaction or PCR method, which has become critical to coronavirus testing, was “an LSD-dropping, climate-change-denying, astrology-believing, board surfing, Nobel Prize-winning chemist,” reads his 2019 obituary, “who was both widely respected and equally criticized for his controversial views.” Upon learning he had won the Nobel Prize, Mullis exclaimed “I’ll take it!” He was also drunk.)

Swabs, including Q-tips and other household brands, are often used in the very place they are not supposed to travel. While every Q-tip blue box admonishes “Do not insert swab in ear canal,” any ENT physician will tell you the warning is universally ignored. (They’re fine on the ear’s surface.) “We see Q-tip injuries all the time,” Liu says. Nor does it stop at swabs. “People stick all kinds of random, stupid stuff in their ears,” he says.

Noses are now our preferred orifice to swab.

“A swab is not just a swab,” says Timothy Templet, Puritan Medical Products’ executive vice president of sales. “Every swab has a purpose, has a performance characteristic that is unique to the use.” A medical swab, he says, “is not a Q-tip.”

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Indeed, Templet is not a fan of the word, though “America’s Swab Experts” is stated right there on the company website. “Swab has too many definitions,” he says. Swab can refer to a sailor, in addition to the task of “swabbing the deck,” Templet says. “A shoe dauber was called ‘a swab.’ It’s a slang word.” He prefers “specimen collection device.” Though Puritan produces 65 varieties of swabs, three types of swabs are used for coronavirus testing: foam, spun polyester and flock. “We have more orders than we can make every month,” Templet says.

Established in 1919, Puritan began as a producer of mint toothpicks, eventually branching out to frozen pop sticks, wooden ice cream spoons, tongue depressors and, eventually, swabs. In March 2020, “the government called us saying they were in desperate need of swabs,” Templet says.

The company now produces 100 million swabs a month, up from 5 million early in the pandemic after building a new plant in a matter of months. Staff more than doubled to 1,200, with another facility under construction in Tennessee. The biggest challenge remains staffing. “I could use about 100 more workers,” Templet says, before extolling the virtues of rural central Maine.

Puritan remains a family business — Templet is the third generation — though not always a happy one. Weeks before the pandemic, he filed a lawsuit to dissolve the partnership with cousin John Cartwright, citing “major, long-standing and irreconcilable disagreements.” The cousins no longer speak, according to the filing, and “are essentially unable even to be in the same room together.” Templet and Cartwright declined to comment on the case.

In May of last year, with the expanded availability of the vaccine — remember those fleeting halcyon days? — there was a brief downturn in swab demand. Delta and omicron put an end to that, along with the release of coronavirus antigen rapid home tests.

Now, it’s all swabs all the time. Basically, it’s Swabaggedon.

“Pre-covid, we would never run out of swabs,” says Liu, the ENT physician. “I’ve never given swabs another thought — until you couldn’t get your hands on them.”

Should you add a throat swab to your at-home covid test? Experts disagree.

For years, Liu found it a challenge to swab patients. “Now most people are so used to having things put up their noses, I don’t have to do the same song and dance,” he says. They “don’t have the same fear. In some ways, it’s made life easier.” Swirling a swab in the nasal passage doesn’t become more enjoyable through increased experience. Says Liu, “I don’t love it all.”

The antigen rapid tests opened a Pandora’s box for swabs — several if you’re hoarding. “Everyone has an opinion of what’s going to happen with covid,” Puritan’s Templet says. “But no matter what the purpose of a test is — STDs, flu, a virus — home testing is here to stay.”

Swabs, too. When the Tennessee factory becomes fully operative this summer, Puritan will be able to increase total monthly production to around 300 million swabs.

Which means potentially a swab for nearly all Americans. Every. Single. Month.