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Should you get tested for COVID-19? That's up to you, but it's now free and relatively easy 

Editor's note: This is the first installment of a two-part account of getting tested for COVID-19.

"That's it?" I ask the nurse administering my COVID-19 test, right after she withdraws a 6-inch swab from my right nostril.

"That's it," she replies, and puts the swab in a test tube with my name on it, ready to ship to a lab.

I had steeled myself for 15 seconds of agony, but the swab only twisted around my nasal cavity for about five. It was uncomfortable—my eyes watered and nose tickled—but I can't call it painful.

click to enlarge FREE TESTING SLO County residents can sign up for a free COVID-19 test at Ramona Garden Park Center in Grover Beach (pictured) or the Paso Robles Vets' Hall. Visit readyslo.org to schedule an appointment. - PHOTO BY PETER JOHNSON
  • Photo By Peter Johnson
  • FREE TESTING SLO County residents can sign up for a free COVID-19 test at Ramona Garden Park Center in Grover Beach (pictured) or the Paso Robles Vets' Hall. Visit readyslo.org to schedule an appointment.

As I exit the back door of the Ramona Garden Park Center in Grover Beach, the nurse turns her focus to the next patient. One testee at a time; that's the policy at this community clinic run by Minnesota-based OptumServe, one of two companies California contracted with to ramp up COVID-19 testing throughout the state.

As I walk to my car, the ease of this feels both surreal and sad. Just weeks ago, getting a coronavirus test was nearly impossible no matter how sick you felt. Only now, after the virus has killed tens of thousands of Americans so far, can any SLO County resident get a free test. It's available, regardless of your symptoms, in Grover Beach or at the Paso Robles Vets' Hall OptumServe clinic.

"We have not restricted it," SLO County Public Health Officer Penny Borenstein said on May 20. "People should take advantage of it."

In that spirit, I set out to obtain both the swab test and the antibody test, a blood test that should indicate whether I had the virus in the past.

Scheduling a COVID-19 swab test was easy through SLO County's readyslo.org website. I created a patient account and answered a questionnaire, which also asked for my health insurance information. The county notes that this test is free and available to anyone regardless of insurance status.

There were several 30-minute slots available in Grover Beach for the coming week. According to SLO County, neither site is consistently hitting its 132-test daily capacity. After signing up, I received a confirmation message with my patient ID number.

As I approach the Ramona Garden Park Center on test day, a masked staff member greets me and asks if I've had symptoms in the past week. I say "no" and take a seat in the waiting area outside the building, where a handful of chairs are spaced 6 feet apart. Three others wait alongside me, all of whom note mild symptoms. We're all wearing masks.

About three minutes later, I'm called inside. A man in full personal protective equipment at a walled-off desk asks for my name and patient ID number. Through a slit in the plastic cover separating us, he hands me a bag with some paperwork and a test tube—and I'm off to face the swab. Two minutes later, I'm outside again, ready to drive home and wait for the results.

About 76 hours later, an email hits my inbox with a link to my results: I'm negative.

Since my test, friends have asked me if I felt comfortable about the setup. My honest answer is yes. The process lasted just 10 minutes; I didn't touch anything or get too close to anyone; and the doors to the building were open for ventilation.

"There is no threat to getting COIVD-19 from entering one of our indoor settings to get tested," SLO County Public Health spokesperson Michelle Shoresman wrote in an email. "It really takes prolonged contact of 15 minutes or more between people to spread the disease, so a five-minute appointment is unlikely to cause infection."

While that response may satisfy me, I realize I'm also 29 years old, not 69 or 79. An older or at-risk person may not feel as comfortable as I did in this setting. And to the best of Shoresman's knowledge, the sites use the same test procedure for both symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals. In other words, where I sat for the test is also where someone with a bad cough sat.

"Why not do drive-through testing?" my friends have asked.

"When a person is sitting in a car and the person taking the sample must lean over and reach in the car, this can actually pose difficulties and make it harder to obtain a good sample," Shoresman explained.

Whether you agree with that or not, I'm relieved that COVID-19 tests—whatever form they're in—are finally widely available in SLO County. Getting one is free and relatively painless. Getting more than one is even OK—say you test negative but then develop symptoms a month later. Or maybe you just want to check again.

Like our public health officer said of their availability: "Take advantage of it." Δ

Assistant Editor Peter Johnson can be reached at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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