Testing times for the nation’s nostrils as the pandemic drags on

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I had my fifth COVID test yesterday, which I think makes me a bit of a COVID test connoisseur. I realise this is far fewer tests than the hard-working souls on the front line, but it still feels like a lot for a desk jockey who’s been working from home since March last year.

I think we all remember our first test, in those heady early days of the pandemic. Waking up with a slight sniffle or sore throat. Googling COVID symptoms with a rising panic. Fears of having my face splashed across the front page under the headline NORTHCOTE SUPER-SPREADER.

People wait to get a COVID-19 test in Collingwood. Credit:Joe Armao

I rolled up to the Northland shopping centre testing site and joined the queue of cars. After an age I got to the front, gave my details and approached the dreaded nurses garbed in light blue. “Say Ahh!” one commanded. “Aargh,” I choked as he prodded my tonsils for some time and then poked the stick up my nose until it hurt and then somehow pushed even further in and then twirled it around like he was a carnival operator making fairy floss. When it was finally over he handed me a tissue for my sore schnoz and sent me on my merry way to await the results.

Lockdown two had me heading back to the testing centre – I had a sniffle and thought I’d better rule out the possibility of COVID, especially as my parents are in the “danger zone” (over 70). I can’t remember much about the experience as I think I’ve relegated the entirety of Lockdown 2.0 to a part of my brain I will only be able to access later, with therapy.

Test number three took place while on holidays in the Sunshine State and the Queensland government decided all visiting southerners needed a COVID test. However, they didn’t make it easy – most testing places required a doctors’ referral and no one was answering the phone numbers provided to find out where to get tested.

Medical staff at a pop-up testing site at Albert Park Lake. Credit:Getty

Eventually I booked a spot and rocked up first thing, only to be greeted with hostility by the receptionist guarding the clinic door like a Chapel Street bouncer, who seemed aggrieved that people wanted a COVID test.

The nurse who did the test, though, was either a ballerina or an angel in a former life, as she did the swab with a light touch in under a second. “Thank you so much,” I said, with tears in my eyes (of gratitude, not due to the prodding).

Test number four was back in Melbourne during the most recent lockdown, as the list of exposure sites crept ever closer to my home. It was a dark and rainy night and the queue was huge, but it turned out to be a (relatively) enjoyable experience thanks to the good-natured nurse who cracked jokes with us as we waited, despite it being close to freezing and the end of her long shift.

Number five – my last test – was also in Queensland, where I am currently staying in a bid to see family and escape another COVID winter (although I fear the joke will soon be on me). The testing place was a tiny backyard at a pathology clinic with a large flowering tree offering a picturesque backdrop to the ministrations of the solo PPE-clad nurse.

She did the test so quickly I almost asked her to do it again. Surely she couldn’t have done it right – it didn’t even hurt. Or maybe I’m just used to it now.

I read that researchers are developing breathalyser tests in several countries to allow for swab-free rapid testing, which means the days of the invasive COVID tests may be numbered.

I hope this is the case, but until it happens I guess I’ll still be rocking up for an old-school nose poke until we are out of this mess.

Emily Day is deputy opinion editor at The Age.

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