Here in Indiana, the State government holds daily press briefings, hosted by the Governor, with the State Health Commissioner, Dr. Kris Box, ten feet down the table and assortment of other State department heads present as needed, either at keep-away distance in the room or via videoconference. They take questions from the Press afterwards, too -- reporters are only virtually present and reminders that, "You have to unmute your own microphone" come up every time, but the whole thing works better than anyone would have expected and after an hour or more, you're left with the feeling that you know what the State of Indiana is doing at present and what they're working on getting done in the future. (For example, demographic data about people with COVID-19 has been sparse; they're improving it and sharing the results.)
The State has leveraged private industry and welcomed volunteers; there's an active homegrown hand sanitizer industry now, distillers and hair-spray manufacturers who are turning the stuff out at cost or free for first responders. They've enlisted local laboratory facilities, too, and that brings us to my experience.
Last week, I started having worrisome symptoms -- a mild fever, sinus congestion, upset stomach, rattly lungs and a cough that felt like it ought to be bringing up a lot more than it was. I took time off work, found enough to do remotely that I worked from home one day, and then I started getting really fatigued and even a little short of breath if I was very active. So I called my doctor (as told earlier) and she decided that I did need to be tested for the virus.
This is a testing system run by a local biomedical outfit with its own labs, running a testing system that didn't exist two weeks ago and operating at a pace that accommodates hundreds of people a day at a minimum. The company has never been in the business of mass testing; they just happened to have the space, the talent and the lab facilities. They whole system has been invented on the spot. Presumably the state had some general plans, and presumably the company was aware of them -- they're the kind of resource that emergency-response planners like to have on tap. But the details? It's all wet-paint fresh!
* * *The testing requires a physician referral (on letterhead, with license number) and online check-in; you are e-mailed a confirmation number, an arrival time and instructions that include a reminder that you must arrive with a copy of the e-mail and a charged cell phone.
The reason why becomes obvious once you drive to the end of the check-in line, past signs reading “FLASHERS ON. DRIVE SLOWLY. KEEP WINDOWS UP. REMAIN IN YOUR VEHICLE.” It’s a long wait filled with one or two car-length advances to the first check-in station, but eventually a half-dozen cars are waved to the curb by a half dozen masked and gloved volunteers, each one with a hands-free headset, holding up a laminated sign that reads “CALL ME AT NNN-NNN-NNNN.” You have to verify your appointment by letting them read the number from your printed-out or cell phone display. I had mine on a full-sized iPad, zoomed in on the necessary lines – and a paper backup, just in case.
That station sorts out the testees (there’s a small group of asymptomatic volunteers, who get additional testing to help build the pool of data) and tags everyone’s car, and then it’s back in line for a long inching drive to the next check-in, past more signs, “REMAIN IN YOUR CAR. KEEP WINDOWS UP. SLOW.”
Slow it is, leaving plenty of time to read a longer sign: “To conserve N95 masks, testers will be in a higher level of PPE than necessary.” Interesting, since everyone so far has had only procedure masks or bandanna masks.
Around a corner and into a parking garage, where another group of volunteers are working in pairs, one holding a sign, “KEEP WINDOWS UP. CALL ME AT NNN-NNN-NNNN.” He waves me in and to a stop; his partner, working at a table in the background is the one who answers the phone, confirms my magic decoder number, name and birthdate, sticks a quick-printed label on paperwork, and hands it to the guy who’d had the sign. He adds the paperwork to a bagged test kit, tucks it under my windshield wiper and takes the sorting tag off my car. Meanwhile I’ve been told to wait for him to gesture me on to the testers, who “...look like they’re wearing space suits.”
I can see them up ahead, working at two groups of three test stations, wearing supplied-air hazmat: a simple “space helmet” with a large, clear visor and one-way exhaust valves, a back-closure Tyvek gown and gloves that go over the cuffs. It’s a clever solution – the HEPA-type filter in the air unit on their back will last all day, the headgear is nearly foolproof, and all they need to do between tests is remove the gloves and put on a new pair.
Soon enough, it’s my turn and I'm waved out. There’s a dedicated traffic director for the test stations and a big sign, “TURN OFF ENGINE.” The tester smiles as I pull up and as soon as I turn off the car, she takes the test kit from under the windshield wiper, removes a sealed vial, and gestures for me to roll down my window.
“Hello, I’ll be testing you.” Her voice has an unfamiliar musical lilt and she radiates friendliness. She holds up the vial. “This has a long swab that I will run up each nostril for three to ten seconds and it will be uncomfortable. It may make you sneeze or cause your eyes to water.” She hands me the remainder of the test kit. “In there are tissues and paperwork. See the label on the vial? The same number is on your paperwork, with directions how to get your test results. It will take one to three days, the lab is getting faster, but there is a number to call if you don’t get results in three days.”
She’s got the swab out by then. “What I need you to do is lean towards the window and tilt your head back...”
She says “Good...” and leans forward, swab at the ready, a tiny bottle brush that is acutely uncomfortable as it goes up my nose, and is no less so when she moves to the other nostril. But it’s quick enough and she bottles the thing back up with another smile. “Okay. Now just wait for the man with the sign, and you can put your window up.”
I thank her – I’ve been saying “Thanks” quite a lot, every one of these workers is a volunteer and there’s a small army of them – and wait for the fellow with Stop and Go signs to get our group of six lined up and out the exit.
It’s all ad hoc. The streetside signs are the largest size you can print on a good office printer and the “CALL ME AT...” signs are just 8.5 x 11 pages in page protectors. There are lot of high-visibility vests in evidence, but in a wide assortment of hues, styles and conditions. Everyone in low-level protective gear appears to have brought their own or chosen from an assortment – and the whole thing runs like clockwork. People are nice. They smile. The testing setup is cardboard boxes on folding tables – but it’s well-organized.
We’re a more-competent species than some of us like to think.
I’ve got a day or three to wait before I know if this is just a dire pollen season or my own Encounter With The Virus, but it’s easier to face after what I saw on the drive-through testing line.