So, we were tested for COVID-19 this week, not because we had any symptoms, but because we had the option which all should have.
The public health policy wonk in me, wanted to experience the testing process, the way I went through the HIV/AIDS testing process year after year, when I was running a national HIV/AIDS education organization, and fighting another epidemic. My mantra during my days of fighting AIDS, was “Take the Test,” the same message being used now. I took the test then, to learn what kind of fears and feelings people experienced who were being tested.
In the battle against the HIV virus, we knew that “education was our only vaccine,” and, sadly, 40 years later, it still is. Now, with testing finally available in Napa County thanks to a public health partnership with actor Sean Penn’s CORE non-profit– I needed to learn whether I was COVID positive: to discover if I was as “high risk” as my entire age group was being stereotyped.
Additionally, the possibility exists that we can see our three granddaughters at the end of this month–the first time in 10 weeks. Sure, I know my status could change between today and tomorrow, but I felt compelled to know what my COVID status was now, and find out how high a risk I actually was.
On Monday, we called the Napa Department of Public Health to set up appointments for us to get tested. The Napa DOH worker took our pertinent info, and said we’d probably get an appointment in a few days. We did. The call came three days later, on Thursday, and Carol Villano and I were asked if we could come to the Napa Fairgrounds—where the mega-music festival BottleRock is usually held on Memorial Day weekend–within a few hours. This year, Sean Penn’s CORE Public Health workers would be the only star attractions at the Napa Fairgrounds
We donned our masks, hopped in the car and, just a bit nervous, headed to get our COVID-19 tests. When we pulled into the Napa Fairgrounds with Carol driving, I started taking photos. The CORE worker waved at me and said “No Photos”, and I later saw the sign which prohibited photos for privacy reasons. Right next to it was another poster that read: “Take the Test,” and “Hagase el examen” in Spanish. We were the 14th car in line, and started waiting at 3:14 pm. We kept our windows up and our photo IDs on the dashboard, as we were instructed. “Hagase el examen.” It felt like the responsible thing to do.
Cars of all colors and sizes were in front of us, and adults of assorted ages were calmly waiting their turn. Not a bad wait, I thought, picturing the miles- long lines that fellow humans in desperate need of food had to endure at Food Banks across the country. Think about that the next time you hear someone complain about wearing a mask.
Car-by-car, we crawled up toward the drive-in testing tent, where four masked and heavily gowned nurses were waiting to provide free testing. Carol watched carefully to make certain the nurses changed their gloves after testing each person, and they did so methodically. Each of the nurses wore a plastic face shield, to protect them from anyone who might be carrying the virus.
The only male nurse of the group, a young volunteer named Ralph, asked us to roll our windows down, and patiently explained what he was going to do with the swabs, and how uncomfortable it might feel going up one nostril. He asked who wanted to go first. I volunteered. Getting tested was my idea, so it was the least I could do.
Ralph asked me to keep my mask over my mouth, while he gently tried to maneuver the swab up my right nostril. He ran into my deviated septum, blocking his path, and tried the other side. It was uncomfortable, as Ralph warned it might be. I didn’t make it easy for him, scrunching up my nose and my face to help the swab slide in as smoothly as it could.
Carol, who wasn’t so keen on getting tested in the first place, did far better. Ralph swept the swab swiftly up her nostril, and she took it without flinching. Women are so much tougher than men.
The entire COVID-19 testing trip took 50 minutes, from the moment we checked in at the drive-through site, until the moment we exited the testing tent. Like 3,000 other residents of Napa County–where 3 people have died of the virus–we were fortunate to be tested–thanks to a movie star with a conscience, not a President without one.
Since we are asymptomatic, we were told we’d find out our COVID test results within 3 to 5 days. Remarkably, we found out we tested “negative” within 24-hours, since the Napa County Department of Health processed all of the days’ tests immediately. I was so astounded by the speed with which the Napa County DOH gave us our test results, that I volunteered to do contract tracing for them—especially since it was not nearly as invasive as the contract tracing we did during the AIDS epidemic.
The professionalism, outstanding quality and first rate service of the joint program between our County DOH and Sean’s Penn non-profit CORE organization, was the kind of public health service that’s a model for the country, and one which should be provided all people, regardless of symptoms, location or wealth.
Carol and I tell ourselves how fortunate we are each day; that we have food, enough money, a roof over our heads, good health, and each other. On top of all that–unlike 97% of our fellow US citizens– we had the option to be tested for this dreaded disease, which has ended the lives of nearly 90,000 people. With numbers like that, we’re all part of the same “high risk” group, called humanity. And we know, from first-hand experience, that there’s something we can do about it.