18 COVID tests later: a mental swab

Testing the limits of my anxiety

If you have symptoms, get tested.”

That phrase has featured in almost every press conference held by the NSW Government throughout the course of this pandemic. And it’s a phrase I’ve taken very seriously. After 18 tests, across 18 months, at over 6 different testing clinics, I can safely say: when I’ve had symptoms, you can best believe I’ve gotten tested. 

The way there

The journey to the clinic is a test of its own. As I’ve been lucky enough to live within walking distance to several clinics, the walk there has done wonders to screen out false positives. Sometimes “flu like symptoms” need to be put to the test, and I had a multi-stage screening process to do just that. Before even leaving the house, a piping hot Earl Grey and a sticky bowl of porridge screened out any symptoms that were just a legacy of sleep. If they persisted, the walk to the clinic itself applied further rigor to my claims. So a brisk constitution, paired with crisp city air, and the mental stimulation of exercise were the perfect appraisal. When I lived in Pyrmont and frequently nipped off to the East Sydney Arts Center testing clinic in Surry Hills (a personal favourite), I gave myself till Hyde Park to really prod and poke at whatever “symptoms” I was experiencing. This is the “Hyde Park Deadline,” a technique pioneered by my dear mother and refined through consistent use. Often, that scratchy throat or shortness of breath was just a product of morning lethargy, but a variant of which that resisted the ministrations of breakfast. If, by the time I’d reached Museum station, my symptoms remained present and active, I’d allow myself to go the distance.

My first time

The first time I ever got tested was at the Pyrmont Bay Pop-up Testing Clinic. This was quite early in the pandemic, and the testing infrastructure was still a bit…eccentric. After getting my test, I had to create an account on a specially made NSW health results portal. As if registering for an MMO, I created a username and password and spent the rest of my day refreshing the results page, desperate for any sign of life. My negative result came the next morning – I promptly logged out of the portal. Sometimes I still wonder if that portal remains active, sometimes I think about checking in on it, just to make sure my negative result stays that way. My first test was a special one, not just because of the online portal or even because it was conducted in a supply closet at the Maritime Museum (discarded exhibits propped up against the wall and all). No, it was because it gave me a taste of what peace of mind in a pandemic felt like.

The test

The overwhelming majority of tests in Australia have been conducted through the PCR (Polymerase chain reaction) method. Invented in 1983 by American biochemist Kary Mullis, PCR allows laboratories to amplify and multiply a small sample of DNA for closer analysis. In his oddly titled autobiography Dancing Naked in the Mind Field, Mullis explains that the idea came to him while driving his silver Honda along California’s Highway 128.

“What subtle cleverness can I devise tonight to read the sequence of the King of molecules?” He opined.

Later crediting LSD as an influence on his moment of genius, Mullis pulled over at mile marker 46.58 and scribbled the secrets of diagnostic divination onto the back of a glove compartment envelope. 

Mullis is an odd man (or at least his autobiography gives that impression). After receiving the Japan Prize for his work on PCR, he claims to have called the Empress of Japan ‘sweetie’ – a feat he’s quite proud of and considers himself alone in. Later, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, he jokingly offered his son’s hand in marriage to King Carl XVI Gustaf’s royal daughter. Less amusingly, he denies significant human influence on climate change and has consistently questioned the connection between HIV and AIDS.

Luckily, PCR hasn’t been cancelled by association. Australia itself has conducted 30,743,658 tests to date, around 0.00005854866067011284% of those were at one point or another in my nose or in my throat. At around 18 months into the pandemic, my 18 tests equate to exactly one per month. Across this period, I’ve witnessed the many evolutions of Australian COVID testing. I’ve had swabs of my mouth, of my nose, and of both. And those swabs have ranged from eye watering to tickle inducing. These variations weren’t simply a product of preferential testing technicians, but rather a reflection of the evolving testing recommendations at both a state and federal level.

During the early stages of the pandemic, horror stories would be passed from person to person about the absolute excruciating agony of getting a COVID test.

“It’s like they’re touching your brain!” Online commentators would insist.

These rapiers of the genetic material collection world are nasopharyngeal swabs, nasal swabs that extend about 12cm in length and are inserted up through the nose and into the back of the throat. Official guidelines recommend technicians swivel the swab and then remove, resulting in a deeply uncomfortable testing experience. Times have changed though, while this was how testing was administered in the early days of the pandemic, we’ve since pivoted to deep nasal and oropharyngeal (throat) swabbing – the latter of which need only penetrate a maximum of 2-3 cm of an adult nasal passage.

Personally, I miss the nasopharyngeal swabs. When they were still in broad use, a test used to mean something. I’d leave the clinic with a stabbing pain in my head, but that pain reassured me that if, by some microscopic chance, I had COVID, there is no way it had escaped the impressive 12cm reach of the swab that had just been poking around past my nasal vestibule. While the more discrete tests we use today certainly spare me from the rigning feeling in my head, the evidence of their use (a dull throb for about 15 minutes after removal) disappears too quickly for my liking. Comparative studies have proven both tests are equally as sensitive when it comes to detecting SARS-CoV-2, and yet the deep penetration of the nasopharyngeal swabs of yore bestowed on me something far more important: peace of mind.

What does it all mean?

Mullis was a great believer in astrology. A Capricorn himself, the Californian biochemist believed that, like ancient Babylonia and China, we too should “look to the heavens for help in understanding life on earth.” While PCR testing uses a far more precise science, when I go and get tested, I can’t help but feel like an ancient astronomer myself. I climb that grassy hill, set up my telescope, and consult the winking stars above.

“The DNA molecules in our cells are our history, and they are the stuff of which our future will be crafted.” Mullis claims. For me, I’m concerned with a very near future, and all I wish to know is: am I okay?