COVID-19 test proves painless and fast

Lower nasal swabbing takes the dread out of the testing process

By , Daily Memphian Updated: June 02, 2020 4:00 AM CT | Published: June 02, 2020 4:00 AM CT
Jennifer Biggs
Daily Memphian

Jennifer Biggs

Jennifer Biggs is a native Memphian and veteran food writer and journalist who covers all things food, dining and spirits related for The Daily Memphian.

I had a COVID-19 test at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday and my email results were delivered at 12:08 p.m. Better news is that I didn’t have to undergo the invasive nasopharyngeal swab, and the best news is my test was negative, though that was no surprise. I wasn’t tested because I’m sick.

I took the test because I don’t want you to get sick.

I’m long past the point of staying at home. Restaurants have opened and I’ve been in them. More will open over the next few weeks and I’ll be in them. I wear my mask and I keep my distance, but still, I want to be as sure as I can be that when I’m doing my job, I’m not putting anyone at risk.

So I took the test, and it couldn’t have been easier.

On Saturday morning, I made a reservation online to get tested at Walgreens at Summer and Highland. I scheduled it for 9:45 a.m. on Sunday, answered a few questions about my health, gave my personal information, and immediately received an email telling me I was eligible for testing but to wait for a confirmation email. About 12 hours later (I’d about given up, but the probable reason for this is coming up), it came. 

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I pulled up at 9:30 a.m. and waited in line about 30 minutes before anything happened. When I made it around the side of the building, there was a sign that said to hold my paper with my confirmation number (the email), my ID and a piece of paper with my phone number written on it up to my window, and not to roll the window down. I had a pen and paper in my bag, so I could write my number. If you don’t, you can enter it in your phone and hold that up to the window.

I waited an additional 25 minutes, then it was my turn. A guy in scrubs about 12 feet away from my window motioned for me to roll it down a little, he confirmed who I was and he gave me instructions that were easy to follow. When he was done, the process started.

I rolled up my window and he brought a cart to me. When he returned to his spot, I rolled the window down, retrieved the paper packet with the swab and back up went the window.

I opened the packet, took out the swab, looked in the mirror and did what he told me: I made five circles around the inside of one nostril, about an inch deep, then did the other. Be sure you make the circles around – don’t spin the swab in one place.

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An inch isn’t much, but it’s enough to make your eyes water a little and enough that my nose turned a bit pink. But there was no pain.

Done, I returned the swab to the packet, the packet to the container on the cart, rolled my window up and waited for him to get it and return to his spot. Then I drove home.

When I received my results so quickly I was surprised and posted it to Facebook, where other people told me they wanted to get testing done, too. Then someone said that my testing was only about 50% accurate because it was processed with Abbott’s ID NOW test.

I don’t think this is correct, but it wasn’t a wild claim. She attached a link to an NPR article from mid-May. I’d read about the same study, but in a story reported by the Los Angeles Times. The gist is that New York University conducted a test of 100 patients and found the test to give up to 48% false negatives. But it was a preprint, early findings, not peer-reviewed, and a small test group. Abbott, as you might expect, called foul, and the White House, which uses the tests daily, offered its support.

What more do you need?

Hmm. I figured a few phone calls wouldn’t hurt. I called Dr. Jeff Warren, who is my personal physician and is also a Memphis City Councilman.

“I’m getting it myself on Thursday,” he said. “We’re going down to pick up my mother-in-law in Florida so my wife and I are both getting it first.”

Last week, Bloomberg and Reuters reported that Abbott’s testing finds the test about 95% accurate and points out the test wasn’t used as designed in the NYU study. Whatever the case, you have at present two other options for the kind of swab I had. Kroger’s mobile site and CVS offer it, and they both send the swabs to a lab for testing instead of doing it on-site; you’ll get results in 24-48 hours.

“Walgreens is by far the outlier with the Abbott quick test,” said Jenny Bartlett-Prescott, the COO of Church Health and the lead of the community testing subcommittee of the local COVID-19 task force. No other local provider gives results as fast.

But, she says, the nasal swab is the direction for all testing because while it’s possibly not as accurate as the nasopharyngeal swab, the difference is minimal and the payoff worth it.

“Even if there is a little less accuracy with (it), it’s worth it with the comfort level you gain,” she said.

The hope is to eventually change all testing to some form of swabbing like or similar to the one I had.

You have to be pre-approved by answering questions when you book your appointment. Bartlett-Prescott said that Kroger does asymptomatic testing, and that CVS and Walgreens seem to follow an algorithm regarding who they test. I asked Dr. Warren if it was OK to take the test repeatedly, as I plan to do it periodically as long as I don’t have symptoms and immediately should I develop them.

“Everyone should be doing that. Everyone who can, particularly if you’re out in public, a healthcare professional, a business owner, a school teacher, students before they go back to school,” he said.

And unless the testing sites are full, they’re likely to allow you to be tested even if you don’t have symptoms.

“I tell people all the time, if you want to get testing, get online. These places have testing available and they would restrict their asymptomatic testing if they were filling up,” Bartlett-Prescott said.

That’s probably why it took 12 hours for me to secure a slot; had people with symptoms requested an appointment, they would’ve been seen first.

You can find all the sites by clicking here; you’ll find links on how to schedule your appointment, too. Here’s more good news: 

“In order to be on the list, they have to guarantee there is no cost to the individual even if they file with your insurance,” she said.

Walgreens didn’t ask for my insurance information and I didn’t pay anything. Like many insurance companies, mine has promised to cover any COVID-19 testing or treatment with no out-of-pocket expense to the insured.

I also called Dr. Manoj Jain, a doctor who is an adviser for the city. I asked him if I wasted my time by getting a test when I’m asymptomatic and by having the Abbott quick test run.

Absolutely not, he said. The accuracy of the quick test is not the “gold standard” of in-lab tests, but it’s reliable.

“No, because if you were positive, you would change your behavior,” he said. “You know that right now, there is a much lower chance of you being positive than if you had not been tested. With a greater sense of certainty, and we can’t say how much that is, you are protecting those you are around.”

Which is the reason I took the test. I take my temperature every day and if I get sick, I’ll feel it. And as mentioned, I would schedule testing immediately if I thought I had COVID-19; I take it seriously while still going on with my life in an increasingly normal way.

But I hate thinking I could be sick and not know it. My cousin, who is a nurse at an assisted-living facility, was tested recently after a co-worker tested positive. So did she, and said she was shocked – she’d been so careful. So she stayed home for about three weeks, got a negative test and went back to work. She would never have missed a day had she not been tested; her only symptoms were she was tired and her head hurt.

“I would’ve attributed my headaches to allergies and my tiredness to working,” she said.

Luckily, the system worked. She was tested, she stayed home, and she didn’t infect anyone.


COVID-19 testing Dr. Manoj Jain Jenny Bartlett-Prescott Walgreens Dr. Jeff Warren


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