Photos: A really good way to catch COVID, for free

In Southern California, COVID cases are exploding, and not surprisingly, it's hit a lot of families, including mine.

So when a San Diego County contract tracer called up and advised me to wear a mask inside my home at all times, even though I'd been breathing the same air as everyone else and nevertheless had no symptoms, I thought it might be a good course to take a COVID test. The County of San Diego offered them at several locations for free. They'd collect data of course, but it seemed low risk in exchange for some important information. Was I in for a surprise.

I chose the location at the University of San Diego, held near a large, out-of-the-way, double-sized parking lot, near the bottom of its hilltop, and the County operation there was open on a Sunday.

Ironically, it wasn't the safest setting you'd expect. For an operation about containing a pandemic, actually, it was completely packed.

Hundreds, maybe thousands, stood in line to get tested. The parking lot was so full, all the way back to the improvised gravel, that it was a challenge to find a spot.

Sure, social distancing was done, to correct six-foot specifications, and everyone in the long, long, line, was very cooperative, quite unlike what you see at Target, Costco and WalMart. Nobody needed to be told to wear a mask, everyone had one. And the officials, both those policing the lines, taking the intake data, and administering the test were all cheerful, courteous, and polite. 

A couple of photos - I've whited all the visible faces out:

But even with all those precautions, it was too much. The exposure in the line extended for an hour and a half and outside was not so bad, but some of it was inside, in a semi-closed garage.

Inside the structure, waiting in line, I could feel the tickle of disease in my nose and in the air. Six-feet is probably fine for most occasions but there's little movement in a line and with big crowds, it amounts to extended exposure.

All I could think was that with Christmas-crush crowds like these, not all that different from what you see in a mall, if you didn't have COVID going in, you probably might coming out. The quarters seemed too close for extended exposure.

When I woke this morning, I had a very sore throat, something I hadn't had before, not like this.

Which raises questions on how much county officials presumably working to contain the spread of COVID really know. Long lines, extended exposure, some waiting inside, it seems outright ideal conditions for catching COVID, even with everyone wearing flimsy non-medical-grade masks. Are the officials dismissing everyone in line as already having COVID? A lot of people in line seeking the free test probably did have it. Their presence there could well have spread it to those who didn't.

Could they have made it a bit safer than it seemed as not? It seems possible - in one way, by not holding it inside. The large crowds coming in at once were an issue, too. Might it not make sense to "meter" entries, perhaps to one-hour windows, as some testing places do, instead of take all comers? That might make the event safer.

For all the complaints and fears about voting lines, the long lines at the COVID testing sites seem strikingly unaddressed. Is it just politics that activates press scrutiny? Why is no one asking about this?

As for me, with my sore throat, I understand it's five days incubation to set a COVID infection. Regardless of what my test shows, available by email from the County in two to four days, I hope I can fend this new symptom off with a heavy dose of Vitamin C, D, and zinc.

Images credit: Monica Showalter

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