PREST: I got the COVID-19 test. This is what it felt like

Flattening the curve will help keep sticks out of our noses

Were you ever one of those kids who had to go to the hospital because you stuck something up your nose?

Back in my day, Light Bright pieces were a popular choice. Crayons never go out of style for nasal exploration, and congrats to any of you who managed to get a whole marble up there.

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If you were one of those unfortunate souls, there’s good news! You already have a little taste of what it will feel like if you need to get the test for COVID-19. Hey Light Bright – thanks!

The test is called the Nasopharyngeal Swab, with “naso,” of course, being the technical term for “nose,” and “pharyngeal” being the technical term for “HEY, don’t touch my brain!”  

I know what the test feels like because I had one. I’ve told a few people that I got the test and they all had multiple questions and wanted to know how it felt, and asked me if they could have my stuff if I died. So I decided to write about getting the test, public service style, so that you will have a little advance knowledge if you need to get one too.

Let’s just start by answering the biggest question most people will have first: it burns a bit.

I’ve never felt anything quite like having a swab stuffed uncomfortably far up my nose and then swirled around up there for 10 seconds. It’s unique! I wouldn’t call it really painful either. It’s maybe a two on the 1-10 pain scale. It’s just, once that thing is up there, you immediately think to yourself, ‘Well, that’s enough of all this.’ And then 9.5 seconds later it’s over and you drive away, blinking.

So that’s the pointy bit of the story. Here’s the rest.

I woke up one recent morning with a sore throat. It happens once or twice a year, and in normal times I’d shrug it off like Chuck Norris, but of course you know these aren’t normal times. These are Strange And Uncertain Times.

I did one of those self-assessment checks and it told me to go get tested. I obliged, not because I thought I might have COVID-19 – I was 99.9 per cent sure I did not – but because I wanted the reassurance of a negative result for when I did venture back into the world to go to work or coach soccer or buy life essentials (beer).

I drove over to North Vancouver’s drive-thru testing site about 45 minutes after it opened on a recent weekday morning. The line looked small upon arrival – I was able to drive right up to the first check point, where a woman handed me a pamphlet of info and slapped a sticky note onto my windshield that simply said my time of arrival. Then I rounded a corner and saw the real lineup, bumper-to-bumper, winding its way through the parking lot.

testing site
A line of cars snakes around the Centennial Theatre parking lot at a COVID-19 testing site in North Vancouver (the testing site is now at a new location at 255 Lloyd Ave. in North Van). photo Paul McGrath

I’ve heard that some people might feel intimidated by the dystopian nature of a line of cars stretching away from plague tents as we all wait to see if we’re headed for doom. But it wasn’t so bad. It could have been the lineup for a car wash, or a music festival. Remember music festivals? More fun than a stick up the nose, we used to say.

While in line I’d turn the car on, roll a few metres, then turn it off and wait for five or so minutes. I worked on my laptop and phone while I was in line (the car was off!), and resisted the urge to stare into nearby car windows to see how bad the other sickos were. I was, actually, quite relieved that I could stay in my car throughout the whole process – it added a sense of security and distance between me and all the other people nearby who probably didn’t have a highly contagious and potentially lethal virus.

After about 90 minutes of weaving and waiting I was finally at the front of the line. This is where the curiosity kicked in for me about what the test would feel like. As I sat waiting for my turn, I watched as right in front of me a little girl, maybe five years old, was administered the test while sitting on her mother’s lap. She squirmed a bit, then when it was over buried her face in her mother’s jacket. But about five seconds later the nurses had her laughing and smiling again and she went happily on her way.

Alright, I thought – the five-year-old can laugh it off. The bar was set for my reaction.  

The nurse who checked me in was charmingly kind yet serious in that “Honey you don’t even know the s*** I’ve seen today” kind of way that only nurses can portray. I pulled around and was greeted by another kind nurse who asked which nostril was going to get the business. Let’s go lefty, I said.

Good choice, she replied.

Then it was mask down and stick up. Way up.

Then it was over. It felt a little odd to drive away mere moments later, the sting of the stick still very much lingering. The sting stuck around for another few hours.

From start to finish, the testing process took me just under two hours. When I left, the lineup was a lot longer than it was when I arrived – I could see wait times creeping past three or four hours. (The location for the North Vancouver testing site has changed since I got mine done.)  

Almost exactly two days later (47 hours to be precise), I got my results. Negative.

All-in-all it was a minor inconvenience punctuated by momentary wild discomfort. For so many people the outcome has been much, much worse.

But it was another little reminder that we need to stay vigilant – keep bubbles small, maintain physical distance, use your COVID smarts – if we’re ever going to get out of this.  

Because we do very much want to get out of this. We don’t want anyone else to get sick. We don’t want anyone else to die. And we sure don’t want to get a swab up the schnoz every time we get the sniffles.

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