I was tested for COVID-19. Here's what happened.

Thursday, May 28, 2020
Tuesday night after dinner, I felt a little chill. As we’ve probably all been conditioned to do in the pandemic, I went to the bathroom to grab a thermometer. It registered a fever of 101ยบ.

I called my longtime doctor. He recommended I get myself to one of Illinois’ free COVID-19 drive-through testing stations the next morning. Which—after a night in which my wife and I kept our distance under the doctor’s strong advice—I did.

The testing station I visited, at 6959 Forest Preserve Dr. in Chicago, used to be one of the state auto emissions testing centers until—for reasons that still frustrate and enrage me—then-Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration allowed closure of the last of the city’s stations, forcing many Chicagoans to drive more than an hour round-trip to get vehicles tested.

That said, the Forest Preserve Drive station is well suited for a drive-through medical test site. Here’s how it went:


6:55 a.m. I arrive five minutes before the station’s supposed to open. Driving southwest on Forest Preserve, I’m pleasantly surprised to see no cars lined up to enter … until I’m unpleasantly surprised to realize cars are lined up to enter from the other direction—and they’re backed up around the corner, and around the corner after that. Dozens and dozens of cars ahead of me. A flashing sign warns people will be turned away when the center’s met its testing capacity for the day. I put on my mask, roll down the window and ask a cop if they’re close to full yet. He assures me they’re not.

7 a.m. I find my way around the block to the end of the line and settle in for a long wait. (Note to future test-takers: Fill up the tank before you go.)

7:45 a.m. A woman asks me to place my driver’s license and health insurance card—if I have one; she stresses that the test is free, regardless, and not to worry if I don’t have one—on the dashboard where they can be read. She also gives me a detailed sheet explaining the guidelines for getting tested and what and when to expect the results. (My doctor said the results could come that evening or the next morning; the official word—on the info sheet—is 4-7 days.)

7:53 a.m. An Illinois National Guardsman walks up, asks me how many tests I’ll need—“One,” I explain, “since there’s just me in the car, right?”—and asks for my phone number. Because I’m a little nervous and light on sleep, I give him the wrong one, but I catch myself in time to get it right. He writes both numbers—1 and my phone number—on sticky notes I place on my windshield as he’s directed.

8:10 a.m. My car has crept along enough that I can see the testing station—and a big sign banning photography. This saddens me, because I’d hoped to record the test itself, which is mysterious to and therefore frightening for many.

8:17 a.m. My time is at hand. I ease my car into place—just as I used to do when they were about to stick a probe up its tailpipe; the similarities are funny. I roll down my window as directed and ask the person about to administer my test—someone dressed head-to-toe in hazmat gear—whether I, a journalist, can video record my own test. He asks his superior to come over and hear my plea. The superior says no. I don’t have much time to be sad, though, because the swabber then politely inserts a long stick up my nose, to boldly go where none of my fingers have gone before, scraping it around a bit in there before removing it. The maneuver takes less than 15 seconds—really not that big a deal, although, as I write this, a day-and-a-half later, I can still kindasorta feel where he swabbed—like, as the Chicago Sun-Times’ Stephanie Zimmermann wrote in April, “how it felt if you’ve gotten chlorinated water up your nose in a swimming pool.”

8:20 a.m. After thanking my swabber—who agrees it’s not that bad but shares that many patients are terrified when they roll up—I drive off.


6 a.m. My fever’s subsided to a rock-steady 98.6. I consider mentioning my adventure to Bob Sirott while we chat over the airwaves on my former employer, WGN Radio, but opt to stay mum while the results are still out.

11 a.m. I send out my free daily email news briefing, Chicago Public Square.

11 a.m.-2 p.m. Three hours of various Zoom meetings for work.

2:30 p.m. I watch Gov. Pritzker’s daily coronavirus pandemic briefing. He takes my remotely submitted question about the safety of water supplies in office buildings that have been largely idle for months but misses the point: What guidance do you have for building managers—and for people who’ll be returning to work in those buildings? (52:56 in this video).*

4:15 p.m. The doc has recommended plenty of rest, so I set out to take a nap. I don’t get far.

4:25 p.m. My phone rings from a number that it labels “unknown” but that I recognize as the number from which the state said my results would come. It’s hard to understand the recorded message that plays and I miss the part about what number to press to get results, but I do hear the part that encourages me to call back to talk to an agent.

4:26 p.m. Keeping a safe distance away, I enter my wife’s makeshift home office, so she can listen on the speakerphone as I call for the verdict. A polite man asks me for my phone number and my name so he can look up my results. He tells me my test is negative. I thank him for the good news, and I encourage him to pass on the advice that someone should re-record that automated callback message. For the first time in almost 48 hours, my wife and I hug.

4:29 p.m. I begin sharing the word with the few friends and relatives I’d told about the fever and the test—and some I hadn’t.

Need a free test? Here’s the state’s evolving list of community-based testing sites and whom it recommends be tested.

* Turns out the University of Illinois Sustainable Technology Center was already on the case. (Hat-tip to prof Gretchen Winter.)


Wendy G said...

Glad to hear you're negative, Charlie! Though, as a general rule, no one wants to be "negative." Just wanted to add that I've driven Jackson through Columbus Park a few times recently and the testing site there always seems to be empty. Sure is a handy location for Oak Parkers. I wonder why no one seems to be using it...

Charlie Meyerson said...

Good to know, Wendy. I just went where the doc told me. And, as my family will tell you, I have a natural tendency toward "negative," so that may have been a help here!

Sandra Jessy said...

Positively glad that you're negative, Charlie - the most positive I can be about a negative result. Thanks for providing your "in-site" about your experience in the site. covid testing near me