I took a drive-thru coronavirus test. Here’s what it’s like

There’s no better way these days to make a spectacle of yourself than to start coughing — especially if it’s a convulsing, dry cough.

Believe me, I know. I’ve been hacking since early February, or before the dreaded “unproductive cough” became a telltale sign of coronavirus infection. Numerous medical professionals assured me it was not the virus, but when my temperature hit 100 degrees last Friday, my doctor finally wrote me a prescription to get tested.

I’d written just a couple days before about the city of Detroit’s new drive-thru testing site, but I had heard a local hospital was giving tests without an appointment. So, after my wife picked up my prescription — the doctor’s office ran it out to her in the parking lot — I dragged myself out of bed and drove out to get tested.

There was no line and no wait. But there was a problem: They very politely told me they were only testing medical professionals. Fatigued but resigned to spend the weekend isolated in my bedroom, I returned home and called the city’s appointment center for a date at the fairgrounds. After dialing 313-230-0505 I spent a minute or two on hold, spoke to a pleasant operator and got an appointment for 3 p.m. Monday.

Then it was back to bed.

Now, I’ve spent some pretty lame weekends in my time, but cooped up in a bedroom trying to avoid contact with everyone in my family — including the cat I dislike more than everyone, but who still counts me as her favorite — tops the list.

Monday morning arrived and, with it, an opportunity to finally get some answers.

I pulled on an old dust mask I had been keeping around, tried to tame my increasingly unruly hair, put on some sweats and headed to the fairgrounds. 

Now, I’m not the most prompt cat on the face of the Earth. And I figured a 3 p.m. appointment meant, get in line at 3, wait in your car and, sometime before 4 p.m., get waved forward and tested.

But I pulled into the rather bleak fairgrounds at 2:59 and a businesslike attendant asked me what time my appointment was. I said “3 p.m.” and, 1 minute later, he directed me to pull forward.

Where I expected to see lines of cars, I instead saw empty numbered lanes divided by traffic marking cones with signs advising “Please stay in your lane,” and “TEST BY APPT ONLY.”

Along the winding route were checkpoints where my driver’s license and prescription were examined on my way to the testing center. Everyone was polite and the operation was staggeringly efficient, but I’ve seen enough post-apocalyptic science fiction movies that I couldn’t help feeling a little sad and a bit lonely as I made my way along the barren fairgrounds to the covered area where about a dozen parking spots were set up next to teams giving the tests.

My test

The scene under the canopy was surreal: eerily quiet, with everyone in view dressed from head-to-toe in protective gear and plastic face shields.

After I pulled into my parking spot, a nurse motioned for me to hold up my ID and prescription again, then asked for my name and date of birth. I was wearing a dust mask I had found in my garage and she told me I could pull it below my nose, but to keep my mouth covered. Before giving me my test, she explained that the swab she would use to take my sample could cause my eyes to water and might make me choke or gag. 

Then she pulled out what looked like a 10-inch-long swab and pushed about 6 inches of it up into one of my nostrils. Maybe it’s because I have already had two similar tests for the flu this year, but I didn’t choke or gag. It  felt like the swab was going so deep into my sinuses that the tip might poke out my other nostril.

But, as promised, the ordeal took only about 10 seconds. And I was on my way with instructions to stay home and self-isolate until my test results come back in seven days or less.

The test site

Mayor Mike Duggan announced on March 25 that the city was partnering with local hospitals to operate a massive drive-through coronavirus testing site at the state fairgrounds starting on March 27.

It would be the culmination of a plan that started with a March 14 phone call from the mayor to General Services Administration Director Brad Dick while he was out of town visiting his mother. Duggan said he needed a testing site ready in two weeks or less.

The state fairgrounds quickly emerged as the leading candidate. For starters, most people in southeastern Michigan knew where the fairgrounds are located, which would be important for a site that would serve patients throughout the region. The grounds also include good access points to move people in and get them back out quickly. And there is a large canopy that could keep health care workers dry as they administer the tests.

After consulting with landscape architects, traffic planners and logistics experts, “we all immediately agreed it was a really good spot,” Dick said.

Next, the city had to find tents and and a heating system to keep health care workers warm while they tested hundreds of patients. The Joe Dumars Fieldhouse would allow workers to store samples in refrigerators, as well as have a break area and place for meals.

After a successful first day on March 27, high winds on Sunday wreaked havoc on the site. Dick deployed garbage trucks as a windbreak to minimize the weather’s assault on the tents, but some damage was still done.

By Monday, the first day with a full slate of appointments, Dick’s team had things back in order and the fairgrounds opened just a few minutes late for the first patients.

1,000 tests

I later found out that one of the volunteers working on the day I was tested was Councilman Roy McCalister Jr. of the Second District. At-large Councilwoman Janeé Ayers has also been volunteering. Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield reportedly stopped by, too.

Duggan has said the testing site has been so successful, officials hope to perform up to 1,000 tests a day — far more than their initial goal of 400 tests per day.

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Paid for by Michael Louis Elrick for Detroit