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A reporter goes in search of a COVID test

sign saying store out of COVID-19 tests
Rogelio V. Solis/AP
Nationwide, people are struggling to find COVID-19 tests as the Omicron variant drives a rapid spike in cases. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

COVID-19 tests are starting to feel like urban legends in Virginia.

Across the state, people are struggling to find at-home tests and schedule more reliable lab tests at clinics and pharmacies. Meanwhile infections are at a historic high. I chronicled my search for a test earlier this week.

First, I should point out that I’m not searching for a COVID-19 test just to prove a point. I recently came into contact with someone during the holidays who tested positive. I thought about quarantining and just waiting it out… until I came down with a sore throat and started feeling run down.

I was out of those take-home BinaxNOW tests that I’d squirreled away, so I decided to go online and see what my options were. An exhaustive search for appointments at pharmacies in the area turned up empty. And I’d heard about how brutal the wait was at the health department’s testing events - people standing around for hours only to be turned away.

So I called my primary care physician. No luck. She was booked out for at least a week. 

Ideally I’d find a PCR test which is considered the “gold standard” in COVID detection.  But it has to be done in a clinical setting at a hospital or testing site which, at this point, I’d realized limited my prospects. I also knew that I probably wouldn’t get those test results for at least a couple of days. I wondered if waiting days for a test made waiting days for a result completely pointless.

After about an hour of searching the web for in-person appointments I decided to circle back around to pharmacies to see if they had any of the take-home tests. Another unproductive 45 minutes online.

I decided to just pack up and head to the nearest clinic. I’d heard about long lines there as well but I was kind of at the end of my rope. I had a headache brewing which only strengthened my resolve to learn whether I had “it.”

I got to Patient First at about 2:45 p.m.. The parking lot was overflowing with drivers, some of whom had carved out makeshift parking stalls. The lobby was completely full despite signs warning guests to maintain a distance of six feet. I signed in and waited four hours, dipping outside periodically for fresh air. When my name was finally called I went through the typical song and dance of a doctor’s appointment where a nurse collected my height, weight, and temperature before the physician came through to swab my nose.

“It shouldn’t have to be like this,” the doctor said to me when I asked her if she was stressed. “You shouldn't have to schedule a doctor’s appointment to get your nose swabbed.”

She collected a sample for the rapid test first, the results of which took minutes.

“I have your ‘negative test’” the doctor said, employing air quotes to emphasize her skepticism about the result.

She moved forward with another swab for a PCR test after the rapid came back negative. It would be more accurate, she said, but would take nearly a week to get results.

I thought about recent op-eds and calls from health officials to save tests for people who need them most. I felt a twinge of guilt when the doctor handed me a note excusing me from work until the PCR results came in. A sore throat and recent exposure with a quasi-negative test result left me in a sort of familiar limbo. 

But despite the figurative and literal headache I endured after a full day’s scavenger hunt, I absolutely did not lose sight of the fact that it was easy enough - for me.

Like many Virginians, I have the luxury of working from home. But thousands of people still have to get up every day and face throngs of potentially infected people for work and school. And they aren’t able to wait in a crowded clinic for test results that they won’t get back for days. 

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.