Thus began my epic quest to find a coronavirus test.
I live near Albany and the New York state covid-19 website features a hodgepodge of pharmacies and clinics, all with different types of tests, result times and availabilities. I drove to a clinic nearby, but at 8:30 a.m., the line snaked out the door and the wait had stretched to an hour and a half.
Should I wait that long for a test whose result might not come back before my flight? Should I pay $150 for a rapid test, or was there somewhere I could get one for free? Over-the-counter tests were sold out everywhere, I’d heard, but perhaps I could comb pharmacies anyway in the hope of finding one that had slipped under a counter?
After fruitless phone calls and Internet searches, a friend told me about an urgent care clinic that offered rapid tests. I drove over and signed up on a sheet taped beside the door. The folks who posted the sign promised to call me when it was my turn, but I’d have to show up within 10 minutes or risk losing my chance. Meaning I could not go home.
So, I ran mindless errands within a tight radius, waiting, worrying and finally wondering whether I had written down the wrong phone number.
Five hours and a $70 co-pay later, I got my test.
Sitting in the clinic waiting for my result at the end of my lost day, I thought fondly of the time, pre-vaccine, when testing was so vital that they called in the National Guard. I could register on the state’s website or by phone and then drive 10 minutes to a sprawling outdoor operation where well-trained soldiers in fatigues checked my ID and waved me along to professionals in white coats, who tested me and sent me on my way. It was sobering, impressive, efficient and free.
That testing site is gone now, along with our collective sense of crisis. But things have not gone back to normal.
Yes, kids are back in school, and stores are open, and yes, I was poised to take a completely nonessential trip. But whether we get to keep studying, shopping and traveling depends on our staying home when we’re infected. So how will we know if we are?
Ahead of me in line at the clinic was a high schooler who had gone to the nurse’s office for a cough drop; instead, she told him to leave school and not come back until he had proof of a negative coronavirus test.
Local school district rules (following New York state guidance) say that a student “must be isolated and sent home immediately” if he or she “has AT LEAST ONE of the symptom(s) below.” The list includes “sore throat,” “fatigue/feeling of tiredness,” and “nasal congestion/runny nose.” These symptoms could indicate covid-19, or they could indicate a mild case of residing in Upstate New York after Labor Day.
Fine. You have to start somewhere. The rules might work if tests were plentiful, easy, fast and free. If the nurse could test students in her office and get the results while they wait.
But to be sent off to find a coronavirus test these days is to be sent on an odyssey that takes time and effort — and possibly money. I’m lucky: I have a car, a cellphone and a credit card. What if I didn’t? I can put off work until tomorrow. What if I couldn’t?
The high schooler was placid and polite; he was trying to follow the rules. But I couldn’t help thinking that the next time he has a sore throat or a headache, he might think twice before alerting the nurse.
President Biden has just promised to spend a billion dollars on rapid testing, theoretically quadrupling the number of tests in circulation by December. I hope that’s enough. The current state of testing is confusing and costly; it discourages routine health measures and disproportionately burdens the poor. Which, come to think of it, describes the American health-care system that I remember from before the pandemic.
That’s not the kind of normal I want back. Surely, we can do better. Surely, we’ve learned that we must.