Anxious about COVID-19 RT-PCR drive-thru testing? Here's the full experience
This wretched coronavirus pandemic has everyone on edge. Masks, face shields, acrylic barriers, social distancing, work stoppages, layoffs, fake news, bad news, vaccines, or the lack of proven ones can make a person scared to go out, as it should.
A few weeks ago, I had been exposed to a contact I suspected to be positive. The signs were extremely subtle, presenting more like a head cold with a slightly runny nose and a little cough, but no fever. Nothing alarming, really. That was until I heard the words: "I can't taste anything."
So a test was needed. Rapid test kits (RTKs) were out of the question because, well, there were too many questions regarding their reliability. There are so many people selling RTKs online, and it's hard to determine which ones are accurate, nor is it possible to determine which ones are actually legit and not counterfeit.
So that only left me with one option: get properly tested at the hospital. But given these times, the last place we want to be in is an emergency room, or anywhere inside a hospital's walls for that matter.
The only proper option was a drive-thru test, even though it violates proper spelling. Yes, I'll be getting tested for the virus that has locked down a good portion of the world whilst in the car.
There are government-sponsored drive-thru COVID-19 tests such as the one at the Quirino Grandstand, but the lines will be excruciatingly long. So I checked the other available options. There are the Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction tests that everyone seems to market (as if it needs marketing) as the “gold standard” in SARS-CoV-2 testing, known more commonly by the RT-PCR acronym or the swab test since they use ultra-long cotton buds to perform it.
I checked the website of the Chinese General Hospital because you need to book the appointment online. The earliest I can book the test was after a week, so I booked it anyway, just to have an appointment. In the interim, however, I needed to get a proper test, just to see where I stood as well as the contact that I suspected to have contracted the virus. The Medical City has a drive-thru COVID-19 test, but at the time it was just the Enhanced Chemiluminescence Antibody or ECLIA test (TMC now has drive-thru RT-PCR for PhP 6000, but the online and phone booking process are both ridiculous).
Unlike the swab tests, the ECLIA test didn't require booking at TMC (at the time) so I just drove up with the person I suspected to be positive and headed down into the driveway where they do the test. Actually, it was just a tent. You pay the fee of PhP 2200 (senior citizens and PWDs get a discount, but I was neither), fill up a form with your email address, then they draw the blood from your arm, and you drive off, expecting the results in 24 hours.
There's no anxiety quite like waiting for a COVID-19 test to arrive in your email. But you have no option but to wait it out. And at about 7:00 AM the next day, the email appeared in my inbox. Negative for IgM and IgG. Phew!
But such was not the case for the other test; the contact I suspected to be positive was indeed positive. High counts of IgM, and little in the way of IgG antibodies; that means the acute phase, not recovered. But there was no fever, no more coughing, and the sense of taste was back. For now, the doctor's orders were to give vitamins, observe, and basically enact TB protocols; you know, separate cutlery, separate sponge, full isolation, disinfection, so on and so forth. So yes, if you know someone who lost their sense of taste, take it seriously and test somewhere reputable.
So now I knew I was exposed to a positive case. Had both tests been negative, I wouldn't have bothered with the RT-PCR test at CGH, but since that wasn't the result, I kept the appointment. The wait is long, but there were no symptoms on my end (i.e. fried chicken still tasted like fried chicken) so I figured I could push through with the drive-thru swab test as planned, as they only accept asymptomatic individuals. If you had outward symptoms, you have to go into the hospital for the test.
Driving up to CGH took about an hour (I live very far away) and I arrived just in time for my noon appointment. They had the drive-thru test center set up in their parking lot to the right of the main driveway, and I had to queue up my vehicle behind several others. Kudos to the staff at the CGH testing center; the guards really managed the line well, queueing up cars at approximately the right order. It still took a while because some of the vehicles had 3 or 4 occupants to be tested while some (i.e. me) were driving solo and will be tested solo.
There were two booths. The first is where you give your name and pay for your test. Nothing to report here; I just paid cash. I had actually chosen the drive-thru RT-PCR test at CGH because it costs PhP 5500. I was told by the cashier HMO or PhilHealth card can only be used if you go inside the hospital for the RT-PCR test, not the drive-thru version. Here, they only accept Senior Citizen and PWD IDs for the discount, and I was neither. So saving PhP 1000 by going to CGH instead of St. Lukes (PhP 6500) was worth it; that's still 1000 in fuel.
Once paid, I got a receipt and the form I had filled up online a week prior. I didn't have to print out or fill up another form, which was good; very customer (or patient) centric in terms of convenience and punctuality. Soon enough, the line cleared, and it was my turn for the swab.
There's no fear like someone in full biohazard-style PPE walking towards your driver side window, but they're doing their jobs; this is already the front line, and they're doing their best to protect themselves in this heat and this stress. The nurse or lab tech (I couldn't tell) was very prompt and cordial and just confirmed a few details. And in no time she opened up a swab kit and began.
The test at CGH was two-fold: oropharyngeal and nasopharyngeal. The first swab is oropharyngeal, meaning for your throat. Like, all the way to the back. It was uncomfortable and you will have to resist gagging, but she needed a sample. She then put that swab away and got started with the nasal one... the one I dreaded getting.
She pulled out a slimmer swab, asked me to tilt my head, and inserted it. At that moment as that swab was making its way up my left nostril, I was thinking two things. The first was where was she going to stop because it seemed to be going all the way up into my brain; you don't realize how far upwards the nasal cavity goes until you have a meeting with a swab. The second was that I was thinking when the last time was that I used a cotton bud to clear (read: pick) my nose.
That swab gives new meaning to tickle your brain. It sounds cute, but no. The feeling is quite uncomfortable as the swab is swirled around, but not really painful. Just... weird. She pulled the swab out and that was that. Or so I thought.
“Okay sir, now for the right side.”
So she did it again, inserting the same extreme Q-tip all the way my other nostril. Yes, it was uncomfortable, but at least you get your money's worth in thoroughness. And, you know, it balanced out the discomfort between the right and left nostrils. I thanked her and then drove home feeling somewhat relieved it's done, and with absolutely cleared sinuses.
The waiting is really what gets to you in this whole process. You wait for the day of your appointment. There's the wait for the test. And now there's the wait for the result, in this case, 3 to 5 days. You can lose sleep over it; I know I did.
On August 22, the results arrived; that was less than 72 hours, which is pretty awesome all things considered. You log into an account as if you were checking Bar results or college entrance exams, and there it was. The file from the CGH lab. I clicked on it and held my breath.
Nothing starts your day better than a negative COVID-19 test. That tells you the precautions you're taking, while annoying, uncomfortable, and cumbersome, are indeed working. Washing your hands, wearing masks, wearing face shields, staying home, social distancing, sanitizing everything, and using alcohol so often that your hands won't pass a sobriety test, was all for something, not nothing.
And, on a separate note, the positive contact has, as of this writing, now fully recovered and with the IgG antibodies.
That person is my 68-year old Dad. We were very lucky he got a very mild version.
So that was the whole experience, and what you need to prepare for should you want (or need) to take a drive-thru COVID-19 test. Hopefully, I won't have to take another one because really, all I want out of any kind of drive-thru (or drive through) in the future is a Quarter Pounder, a large French Fries, and a Coke.