Coronavirus testing fails to deliver

Coronavirus testing is a difficult process. And that’s just getting hold of the test in the first place.

If you have symptoms of coronavirus, you should get tested immediately and self-isolate until you’re given the all-clear. Although it’s not quite that simple. Getting your results is quite a testing process in itself.

According to the WHO, 80% of Covid-19 cases are mild or entirely asymptomatic. I’ve had no cough, no fever, and my sense of taste and smell are fully intact (painfully so for someone who lives with an adult man and a toddler). But for long and complicated reasons that I won’t bore you with, I ended up having to have a CT scan of my chest last Friday. Rather unexpectedly for everyone involved, that scan showed signs of a viral infection in my lungs. 

There are a million types of viral infection, and no way to tell from a CT scan which type it might be. But, of course, Covid-19 has to be a possibility. The hospital weren’t allowed to test me because they weren’t admitting me; I’m not sure for what reasons hospital staff aren’t allowed to at least give out testing kits, given that they’re the people most likely to be encountering those with symptoms, but they’re not. So the consultant suggested I get myself tested. 

The testing process

I debated whether to go to my nearest testing site at the Amex stadium (which has since closed) or request a home kit, and in the end decided that loading the whole family into the car and potentially waiting around for a long time didn’t seem like a great day out. I thought the home test would be less painful. 

There is nothing not painful about the whole process. First of all, I had to order the tests for my whole family, which meant filling in lengthy questionnaires about myself, my husband and my daughter, very little of which information appeared to be useful for health reasons. I even had to have a credit check as part of the process to prevent me fraudulently obtaining a test. Presumably to make sure we all give Dominic Cummings the right data.

Part of this process involves trying to establish when you first experienced symptoms – but, of course, I hadn’t. You can only be tested for coronavirus in the first five days of being symptomatic, and after that the virus can’t be detected. What that means for me, I have no idea. Considering four-fifths of people who have the virus won’t have any signs, there is staggeringly little information available on how to proceed if you’re at risk but asymptomatic.

The website then says that tests should be received the following day. We therefore expected to receive ours on Saturday.

They actually arrived on Sunday, at which point I discovered that the government are using Amazon, not Royal Mail, to dispatch their test kits. Interestingly, if I had ordered the kit directly from Amazon at that point on a Friday, then, as a Prime customer, I actually would have received it on Saturday. Somehow in their contract with Amazon, though, the government have been deprioritised. Which is comforting. So we received it on a Sunday. 

But you can’t take the test on a Sunday, because test kits aren’t collected on a Sunday – Amazon might be delivering, but Royal Mail are collecting, and no one’s paying them to come out on a Sunday. If the tests aren’t processed within 24 hours then they will be invalidated. So we had to wait until Monday. At this point we were four days from when I’d first been identified as at risk of infection – cutting it fine for that all-important five-day period, assuming that I hadn’t been carrying the virus before that.

Getting testing done

Given the detailed life histories and dental records (ok, not quite, but it felt like that) of each of us that I’d had to submit to order each separate test, I thought they’d arrive with one designated for each person. But no. I had to go online again and register each test to a separate individual, with more forms to fill in. It was an excruciating process before I even got to the test. 

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to poke yourself in the tonsils, but it’s not a pleasant experience. I struggled to get the swab anywhere near the right place without gagging. I think I managed to touch something like the right bit, but I’m not sure if I did it for long enough. You have to jab the swab up your nose as well, which is much easier. But since the instructions are at pains to highlight that touching any part of your mouth with the swab other than the precise correct area will likely invalidate the test, I couldn’t help but wonder why this doesn’t need to be done by medical professionals. Given that I was in a hospital when the risk was identified, surely this whole thing could have been done much more effectively and efficiently if someone had just stuck a stick down my throat then and there? 

As if that wasn’t enough fun, I then had to swab my daughter. If it was difficult finding my tonsils, I can only imagine what bit of her I might have swabbed. The poor thing was inconsolable until we found some lollipops in the freezer. Luckily, toddlers have short memories. 

So then we sent the tests off. You need to find a designated priority postbox in which to deposit the tests, but there seem to be plenty available. And then we waited. And waited.

Pass or fail

My husband received his results (you get a text and email) very late on Wednesday evening. Yet as the person who ordered the tests – the person who was identified as at-risk in the first place – I had to wait another 20 hours for mine. I received my text a full six days after first ordering the test, and four days after taking it. Thankfully, we are all negative. 

It seems from the messages Sussex Bylines received on Twitter that five days is a common wait. Sarah told us: “I do a home test every week for the vaccine trial and the wait has been getting longer – last week it was five days.” A few people told us they had had theirs within 48 hours, though, and one had their results from a drive-through centre in eight hours. So it’s a bit of a lottery. Helen waited 11 days for her first test, but 72 hours for the second. Others told us that they’d taken tests months ago and never received their results at all. If you’re going to get tested, then, strap yourself in and wait to see where the ride takes you. 

It’s not surprising that the UK government is still missing its test and trace target, given the utter shambles of the testing system. Since millions of people in this country are likely to be carrying Covid-19 without any symptoms whatsoever, more needs to be done to create a more efficient way of identifying those who have the virus before we have any hope of containing it. Testing is too important to be done this badly.

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