TRURO — As my close friend and neighbor calmly explained to me on the phone that he had a high fever and was showing potential coronavirus symptoms, my eyes drifted to the plate that I hadn’t yet cleared off the dining room table from the night before, and the crumbs clinging to the single fork we had used to share a slice of strawberry rhubarb pie.
It was suddenly very hot — I couldn’t tell if that was a product of the blazing July sun on a perfect Sunday beach day or invisible virus particles that were already starting to take root.
Mentioning his symptoms to my parents brought breakfast to a screeching halt. Both their heads snapped to attention. I was immediately sentenced to isolation in my bedroom while they tried to figure out how to get me tested as quickly as possible.
Deep down I knew that it was already probably too late. I had seen my neighbor nearly every day for the last two weeks, so even if he was just showing symptoms now, it was possible I had been infected for a while.
The difficulties of the week-long waiting period and mish-mash of testing that followed paled in comparison to my distress about the question lodged in my mind for the duration of my brief — and ultimately false — coronavirus scare.
“Who have I doomed?”
The teen experience with a potential coronavirus infection has its own unique burdens. Fear of the illness itself is minimal: since day one of the pandemic we’ve been drilled on how we’re not as at risk as the older people around us. Even with limited testing, Harvard Medical School reports that “symptoms of the disease were generally less severe in children and teens compared with adults.”
On the first day of my in-room quarantine, I ran through every interaction I’d had in the past two weeks, the incubation period during which I could have unknowingly been a plague rat shedding virus onto my closest connections. Every time I gathered a thread for contact tracing, another seemed to slide into place. My best friend, and her parents, two days earlier. My aunt and her four-year-old daughter, four days earlier. The man I had interviewed for the newspaper the day before. My parents, the cashier at Chequessett Chocolate, my dad’s friends who got a little too close on the beach.
And, for the big finale, my grandparents. I tried to do the mental math: could I have been carrying the virus the last time I saw them? Did I touch anything while I was in the kitchen? Why did I hug them?
There was a seemingly simple solution that could ease my fears, and save me from my room: getting tested and seeing that increasingly likely negative result.
After several days and hundreds of thermometer checks, no one in my house or my neighbor’s house had a temperature. Still, it was possible that I was asymptomatic and had, in typical teen fashion, just not interacted with my parents enough to have infected them.
But getting tested turned out to be a laborious process. Over the course of a week, my neighbor would have a nose swab and I would take a rapid test and then the molecular saliva test.
Molecular tests rely on the collection of the virus’s genetic material from the nose or throat. In my case, all I would need to do was spit in a jar while a doctor watched over Zoom to confirm that I properly sealed and sanitized it. While the kit was being shipped to me, my neighbor got his nose swabbed at Outer Cape Health Services in Wellfleet: another form of molecular testing. Molecular tests are highly accurate when diagnosing active coronavirus infections, but they can’t tell you if you had the virus in the past.
The online kit route was appealing because of the speed of diagnosis: as opposed to waiting five to nine days as my neighbor had to do for his nose swab test results, my mailed-in saliva sample would take only four or five days total to process at a different lab.
We decided I should also take the antigen test, or rapid diagnostic test. My mom did some internet research and found a place that promised test results in only 15 minutes. I arrived at CareWell Urgent Care in Dennis while we waited for the molecular test to arrive on our porch.
The antigen test in Dennis, in the form of a nose swab, does in fact take only 15 minutes to process. But the line to get registered for testing wrapped around the CareWell building and spilled into the parking lot of the nearby grocery store.
I waited, masked and in direct sunlight, for about three hours. Although everyone in line stayed six feet apart, there’s something disconcerting about being among so many people who have reason to believe they’re infected. I couldn’t help but wonder if the rapid test was really worth it: would a negative really matter if I picked something up from the man with a cough, three spots ahead of me, on my way out?
Another problem with rapid antigen tests is the tradeoff of accuracy for speed. When it comes to antigen tests, the FDA says, “Positive results are usually highly accurate, but negative results may need to be confirmed with a molecular test.”
Fifteen seconds with a swab up my nose through the car window, and a phone call 20 minutes later, told me I was negative. I shouldn’t have been disappointed by that news, but all it really meant was that I was back to waiting. Because probably negative just isn’t good enough.
My neighbor and I both waited in our rooms to see if his nose swab results would beat my mailed-in saliva back from the lab. Every now and then, my parents would FaceTime me from their bedroom right above mine to check on me.
Exactly a week after the whole ordeal started, we got our second negative. Outer Cape Health Services called my neighbor with results. The day after that we got our third negative when my molecular mail-in test confirmed there was no coronavirus in my system.
I hadn’t doomed anyone. But a week of imagining everyone you’ve come into contact with, and everyone they’ve come into contact with, slowly getting sick by your hand doesn’t fade easily.
I stayed indoors for a few more days. And I’m still not hugging my family.
Independent journalism fellow Sabina Lum is a rising senior at George C. Marshall High School in Falls Church, Va.