A Not-So-Rapid COVID Test Experience

A Not-So-Rapid COVID Test Experience

After returning from a recent vacation road trip to Virginia, I did what any health-conscious MA resident should do and sought to abide by our state’s travel regulations that have been in effect since August 1st. According to these rules, I was returning from a state that was not considered low-risk, so I should either produce a negative COVID test within 72 hours prior to returning to MA, or quarantine upon arrival for 14 days (or until a negative test is produced). Given that I didn’t have the foresight to get tested before leaving VA and spending two straight weeks cooped up in my apartment wasn’t all that appealing, I chose to seek out a rapid COVID test to produce a negative result and allow me some freedom to go grocery shopping, attend a photoshoot for a restaurant client, and have other socially-distanced interactions this week. Getting a rapid test would give me results within 15-30 minutes as opposed to waiting days and seemed like a fairly straightforward and easy thing to do.

And so began my stressed-out saga of seeking a same-day rapid COVID test. Read on for a play-by-play; I apologize for the length of this blog post in advance, but it’s a testament to how difficult of a process this can potentially be.

Friday 8/14: The day before leaving VA and arriving back in MA, I called the Somerville CHA COVID testing hotline number to try to schedule an appointment free-of-charge at their mobile testing location in Assembly Row. The hotline is only open Monday-Friday 8:30am-4pm, and the site itself is open Monday-Friday 9-4pm, so no weekend testing or scheduling options available. Still, I try my luck to get an appointment as early in the following week as possible after I arrive back in MA. Due to poor cell reception in the remote part of VA I was in, my call wouldn’t go through. “No worries!” I thought, since their webpage also states you can “save time and book online” if you’re already a CHA patient (which I am).

I logged into my CHA patient portal and sent an appointment request. A few hours later, I received a message back: “Hi Brooke! To make an appointment for COVID testing, you can call 617-665-2928.” Wow. Super helpful. CHA may want to consider removing the messaging about “saving time and booking online” if that’s not actually an available option. By the time I received that run-around response, it was already 5PM and the hotline was closed for the weekend. Strike one…

Saturday 8/15: I arrived back in MA around 8pm after 10 hours of driving, tired and happy in a post-vacation glow but already feeling stress starting to creep back into my life. Knowing the Assembly Row CHA testing site wouldn’t be an option until Monday at the earliest, I Googled other nearby testing locations to see if I could get tested on Sunday. The Carewell Urgent Care center on Broadway is a 3-minute drive away from my apartment, listed as a testing center, and open on weekends – jackpot! Only downfall – you can’t book an appointment online or call ahead, and a rapid test wouldn’t be covered by insurance for asymptomatic patients. $160 out of pocket (ouch!) would get results within 15 minutes though, so I resolved to bite the bullet and planned to swing by the next day, get tested and be on my merry way.

Sunday 8/16: After a late start to the day, it was around noon when I pulled up to Carewell on Broadway. Seeing a small line outside the building, I went inside to register an appointment and then wait my turn, but the front door was locked. A sign on it stated that the center is only open for asymptomatic rapid testing from 8-11:30am. A sign next to that stated the center was already at capacity for the day. I asked someone in line if this was true, and they say they’d been waiting since 8AM when the center opened for a test and that it gets so crowded in the mornings the center reaches capacity almost immediately after opening. I’d have to try my luck another day. Strike two…

One of the signs posted by the entrance to Carewell Urgent Care on Broadway (Somerville). Note that their website has not been updated to mention these restricted hours.

Out of desperation, I drove to another nearby Carewell center in Cambridge to see if it might be less busy and still accepting asymptomatic patients for tests. To my dismay, they had the exact same signs posted on their doors, too. Strike three…

“Frustrated” was an understatement at this point, so I headed home and figured I’d try my original plan of calling the Assembly Row CHA testing site hotline first thing the next morning. This was becoming quite the headache.

Monday 8/17: The CHA hotline opened at 8:30am, so I dialed in by 8:31. After being placed on hold for about 10 minutes, I got through. “Hi, can I please schedule a rapid COVID test for today or tomorrow?” I inquired. “I’m sorry, we don’t do the rapid test but we do have the standard PCR test with results in about 3-5 days. We’re booking out starting on the 27th if you’d like,” a pleasant but ultimately unhelpful worker responded. The 27th would be 12 days since I arrived back in MA, just two shy of a full quarantine period, and waiting several days for results seemed like a moot point by then. I thanked them anyways and hung up. Strike four…

Tuesday 8/18: At the end of my rope and looking to get a rapid test to allow me to attend a photoshoot planned in the afternoon (granted I received a negative result, of course), I decided to try my luck once more at Carewell on Broadway. This time, I arrived at 6:45AM. The sun had barely been up an hour, and I was already 12th in line. Yikes.

By 8am when the doors opened, there were about 40 other people behind me, wrapping around the building and into the parking lot. A nurse came out (not in full PPE gear, but with a mask, gloves, and a paper gown covering scrubs in the front) with an iPad and checked everyone in; this part of the process was easy. He collected my driver’s license and my debit card, and I scanned a QR code on the iPad with my phone. It opened a registration link, and he told me I could wait in my car while filling out the online forms and they would call me when a room is available.

A line of about 12 people ahead of me by the time I arrive at 6:45AM. Patience is key… and good thing I brought a book with me to help pass the time!

Thankful to get out of the now blazing sun, I went to my car and filled out the registration forms. I reached the end of the questionnaires and came to a “Loading…” screen that just kept circling, despite my working cell reception. I sighed and waited a few minutes. Nothing, just “Loading…” I refreshed my browser and was brought back to the first screen of the registration, forced to fill it in all over again. I did so, then got the same perpetual “Loading…” screen once more at the end. Uuuuuggghhhh. Strike five…who’s even counting by this point?! I get out of the car and ask the nurse about this concerning glitch, and he says it happens often (not very comforting to hear) and not to worry, they have my info and would call me soon. Not much more to do but sit and wait. It’s about 8:30, and I see they’ve already posted the “At Capacity” sign on the door, but luckily I’m in the cut.

At 10:45, almost three hours after the center opened, I received a call saying a room was now available. I went to the front door where the same nurse greeted me, handed me back my ID and debit card, and told me to go to room #3 down the hall where he’d see me in just a few minutes. I waited in the room as told, and sure enough within less than 5 minutes he came in, quickly explained that he’d swab my nostrils and the test results would be available through their online portal within 15 minutes if negative, and they’d call me if I tested positive. Before I could even say “Sounds great, thanks!” he’s jammed a long cotton swab farther up my nose than I ever thought possible. I can’t say it was a pleasant sensation by any means, but it was over within 5 seconds flat and I was promptly out the door.

About 15 minutes later back at my apartment, I saw a message on the online portal waiting for me. I checked it and sighed with relief my result had come back negative. Finally, a score for Brooke!

After several days of struggling to find a testing center for a same-day appointment, four hours of waiting in line, 5 minutes in the actual test room, and another 15 to get the results, my COVID testing experience was definitely less than “rapid.”

Trying to schedule a COVID test was an extremely frustrating, time- and energy-consuming experience for me, yet it was the exact opposite for my boyfriend. In absolute contrast, Ashkan’s testing experience was a walk in the park. On Monday, he booked an appointment in advance online for their earliest available time on Tuesday evening at AFC Urgent Care in Arlington, a short drive away from more densely populated Somerville. About 2 hours prior to his appointment, Ashkan received a phone call confirming his registration info (he was able to pre-register ahead of time online while booking the appointment) and instructing him to park in the back of the building upon arrival. I went with him for moral support (because who wouldn’t like a hand to squeeze while getting your brain tickled through your nose?), and I and was amazed at how seamless the process was. At 5 PM we pulled into the back parking lot, were immediately greeted by a nurse in full PPE gear who took his ID and debit card. Two minutes later the nurse came back, swabbed Ashkan’s nostrils (he took it like a champ, FYI), and we waited in the car for another 10 minutes until a printout of the negative result was handed back. His out-of-pocket cost was slightly higher than mine ($175 compared to the $160 I shelled out), but hey, in this case it seems you really get what you pay for. Home run for Ashkan!

What a crazy, flawed system for testing we have in this country. I’m fortunate to live in an area where there’s several nearby testing sites at my disposal, and yet trying to schedule an appointment at any of them was absurdly difficult. In busier, densely populated areas like Somerville and Boston, many testing centers are inundated with high patient volumes while being understaffed and underfunded. Combined with high out-of-pocket testing costs and inconvenient hours that force workers to take time out of their day to get tested, it’s no wonder many people (especially those who are asymptomatic) aren’t getting tested at the rate they should. Take this as a cautionary tale, and my word of advice would be to seek out testing centers beyond city limits if needed. Until COVID testing becomes a much more accessible, affordable, and overall easier experience, there’s unfortunately going to be a lot of undetected cases going around. I’m glad to have gotten tested to know my status immediately, but my overall experience truly was “negative” more than it was “rapid.”

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