A Maddening Tale of Being a COVID-19 Test Zealot

Jonathan Make
6 min readOct 11, 2020


Figuring out how to entertainingly write about the foibles of COVID-19 testing has proved to be almost as hard as it is to get a test. Cracking this writing nut is something that’s occupied waaaaay too much of my inner-voice personal time since we got our first test several months ago.

The fact that it’s so challenging to concisely describe just how aggravating it can be to get tested is in my view testimony to the considerable hurdles that exist in taking care of oneself in these confusing times.

There is a lot of current confusion about a lot of things health-wise. As the pandemic has worn on and we’ve at least somewhat adapted, the ambiguity about what exactly is a coronavirus best practice versus what’s risky compared to what’s paranoid has evolved for me. I am sure that I am not alone in this ever-shifting mental state of muddling through.

This weighing of what’s healthiest versus what’s practical started before the virus was even declared a pandemic and before widespread lockdowns.

I remember eating (indoors! at a restaurant! with my family — and friends!) one night and trying to nonchalantly pick the table farthest from other tables, all without appearing to be doing this.

This would have occurred in very early March. I wanted to keep away from the dreaded disease while also not being a pain in the rear to my fellow restaurant patrons or to become a social stick in the mud.

Quick aside: The only restaurant where we’ve actually eaten AT the restaurant during COVID-19 was the same one where I vividly remember trying to sort through the considerations in the above paragraph. On a beautiful late-summer day for a very late lunch, my family ate in the outdoors area at La Plaza. I had scouted it out before we committed to dining al fresco, to make sure the outdoor seating wouldn’t be too crowded. As it turned out, we were the only occupied table for most of our meal. Phew.

The next public health/public space versus personal comfort issue came to the fore for me with the dilemma starting in early April of whether to mask up or go mask-less. I won’t recap that, other than to point you to my earlier post, titled “My mask anxiety, unmasked.”

From my blog on masks.

More recently, when it’s come to the coronavirus, much of my mental energy has been directed to trying to figure out what’s the quickest and easiest way to safely get COVID-19 tests. This has turned out to be no simple matter.

Quite to the contrary, I’ve found wide variability in many aspects of testing. From cost (free to $200) to time to get results (couple days to about a week and a half) to whether an appointment is needed and how long in advance it must be made.

In the one private-lab foray my family undertook versus four rounds of free testing, I’ve found that money doesn’t necessarily buy much of anything. Our private lab test was our second test, and it did require an appointment but one that we could make on the same day.

Most important to you, dear reader, was that this test was also by far the most painful. It was the both-nostril, insert-the-stick-so-far-down-it-seems-to-be-coming-out-your-mouth test. The only medical procedure I’ve experienced that was more uncomfortable was getting a colonoscopy with an insufficient dose of memory-eraser.

My son had little problem with this test.

I would have been better off getting the test before him, so that I couldn’t watch his experience first to observe just how big the stick-swab-torture device was nor how far up it was inserted. I thought the nurse would never stop inserting the tube into my nose, and it felt like my nostrils were being separated from my nose. On the second nostril, it was so painful that I unintentionally began to physically stop the procedure before the nurse and my son could hold me down.

About to get tested, in a tent.

We all joked that I didn’t uphold my son’s excellent behavior. So I broke the family record and not in a good way.

I understand that this sort of test is supposed to be the most accurate. I think that it’s the gold standard. It’s just that there is a tradeoff of massive discomfort. My nostrils hurt me for a half-hour afterwards. We got our results in a couple days.

One of the easiest tests we had was our first: serology. Administered by the city’s health department, it required an appointment several days beforehand, and it took the longest amount of time to get results of any of our tests — about 10 days.

It was just a bit of blood, taken from your upper arm, just like when going to a commercial lab for routine health testing such as for cholesterol. It was a total breeze for my son, and not hard for my wife, either. For me, they had a hard time finding my vein, which was the only complicating factor.

My wife just this week got another test from the city. She called the health department, made an appointment, and the same day, in the evening, she walked to a nearby firehouse. Nice!

(At this point, you are probably wondering why I’ve gotten so many tests. I’ve started to wonder that myself. Because of some family and logistics issues, we kept thinking that we would have to travel imminently, so we got a test before each potential trip. We also were tested following one trip, when we were around people not following COVID-19 best practices.)

Another easy test is administered by a local nonprofit that runs several clinics in the city. A friend recommended it, as they have one location near her. And the organization, Unity Health Care, has a location a few miles from us.

Unity, where as of today I’ve had three tests, uses short swabs to insert up one or both nostril. Why the number of nostrils they get a sample from varies, I don’t know. What also varies is how far they insert the swab.

Overall, getting one of these tests is a breeze compared to the both-nostril, all-the-way-up-them session. I highly recommend the less-painful route. The medical staff there said the tests’ accuracy was quite good, so maybe one doesn’t need to sacrifice accuracy to experience less discomfort. Others, however, have told me that any test other than the full-nostril one isn’t likely to yield highly reliable results.

Unity’s website.

The drawback with Unity, and I suspect other test sites that I haven’t patronized yet, is that their testing locations aren’t always open when they are supposed to be. The other downside is that Unity doesn’t always pick up their phones. So what this means is that there is lots of trial and error with getting a test this way.

On some occasions, I was able to show up once. And I think all three times here, I got results back within three business days.

Other times, it took multiple attempts before I could complete a test. For instance, I’d set aside an hour-plus of the day to go, sometimes getting backup at work so I wouldn’t be missed. By the time I arrived, the tent out front of the clinic where they did testing was closed.

In some instances, I spent a lot of time trying to call Unity to find out whether the testing site was open. Often, I’d never got an answer to that question before I showed up in person to check it out.

I was told this facility often had a shortage of medical personnel, in part because a doctor was required to be on-premises anytime they were administering testing. I’m sure there are bona fide reasons to insist on this, but as a patient, I’m not sure it affects me whether a medical doctor is there or not. I don’t think there’s anything much that an MD can add to making the whole experience a success.

Bottom line: Do your research before you get tested, be prepared to invest some serious time and energy, and don’t necessarily believe that going the private route is any better than other options. And the safer you are with mask wearing, social distancing, avoiding crowds and staying out of other folks’ residences, the less likely you’ll be to need a test in the first place.



Jonathan Make

Buff about good journalism, writing, art & culture. Heart my wife, son & pets. See my LinkedIn for professional bio info.