Testing terror: Finding a COVID-19 test in Arizona

From a long search for a test to crowded wait rooms, testing for COVID-19 in Arizona last month was a tiresome process

After returning from a weekend in Tucson in late June, my friends and I became increasingly nervous that we had contracted COVID-19 during our stay. We were hesitant about going to Tucson because we had been practicing social distancing, and going on the trip meant we would be sharing close quarters with one another. Despite our misgivings, we decided, perhaps impulsively, that the trip would alleviate our collective cabin fever. After two days of near-constant texting and temperature taking, we had convinced ourselves that we returned to Phoenix with the virus. 

I had none of the typical symptoms — cough, fever or shortness of breath — but I did wake up on the second day of our return with a pulsing headache and a stuffy nose, so I decided it was time to get tested. I frantically told my mom that I thought I had contracted the virus and needed to get tested right away. 

I would have guessed that getting tested would be quick and easy, and I would know whether or not I had the virus within a matter of a couple days. But in about five minutes of research, I learned that was not the case. 

I learned that the majority of COVID-19 testing sites needed a referral from a primary care physician, urgent care center or hospital. Because I wanted to get tested immediately, it did not seem like a plausible option to schedule an appointment for a few days out to get a referral and then take that referral to make an appointment at a COVID-19 testing center. My mom found an urgent care center that took walk-ins and said the results would come back within 24 hours. I drove 45 minutes to the West Valley only to be greeted by a nurse who informed me that they ran out of walk-in availability for the day and told me if I wanted a chance to receive a test from that location, I needed to line up at 6 a.m. the next morning.

I then made an appointment at Banner Health for the next day at 11:30 a.m., but I was still hoping to find a testing location in the next few hours. My mom made some calls and found another urgent care testing site and made me an appointment for 3:45 p.m. the same day. But alas, my luck was no better than it had been in the morning. The nurse at this site only had bad news: They ran out of COVID tests for the day. 

I woke up early the next morning to find a backup testing appointment in case my appointment at Banner Health fell through. I went onto the CVS COVID-19 testing website in order to create a drive-thru testing appointment. Even though I woke up at 6 a.m., there were no available testing spots at any CVS in the Valley for the next three days. This lack of spots led me to assume that thousands of people were in the exact same position as I was, scared and wanting answers. 

So, no plan B for me. At least I still had the July 2 Banner Health appointment at 11:30 a.m. 

After checking in for my appointment, I asked the nurse if I could wait in my car to avoid being exposed to any other patients in the waiting room and was coldly told, “No.” I waited two hours in a small, crowded waiting room to get my COVID-19 test. We were seated six feet apart in the waiting room, but people were coughing and new patients were coming in as previous patients exited. Not a pretty picture. I couldn’t help but feel I was being exposed to the coronavirus even if I hadn't been already. I nervously went to pump some hand sanitizer on my hands and learned the bottle was empty. In fact, all three hand sanitizer pumps in the urgent care were empty. I watched a small 2-year-old boy run around the waiting room without a mask, playing with the communal toys. I cringed as he put his hand in his mouth and then continued to touch the floors, chairs and toys. 

Even with an appointment, I sat for two hours in a waiting room with sick people and no hand sanitizer. When I was finally called back, they said they would evaluate whether or not I should be tested, making me think that they, too, had a scarce supply of tests. But, I did get the test, and two days later, I had my result. It came in a 40-second phone call where a woman verified my name and date of birth and then told me that my test was positive. 

I was positive for COVID-19. 

She told me that I should quarantine for 10 days, and that was it. No one counseled me about what to do if my symptoms got worse. No one told me what to do if my symptoms changed. No one mentioned whether I should get re-tested after my quarantine was up. No one told me that I needed to tell people I was in close contact with that I was positive. No one told me that a contact tracer would be contacting me and that it was important for me to cooperate with that person. 

I was left with the internet to answer my long list of questions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended to quarantine 14 days after the initial exposure, although I found in a different science blog to quarantine only 10 days after symptoms disappear — what the person on the phone told me. Like most people in this situation, my decision was left up to my better judgment, and I decided to quarantine for the full 14 days and then get retested to ensure I did not spread the virus to anybody else. 

I was lucky that I had the resources to find several testing sites, drive to several appointments, wait for two hours without having to worry about getting to work or picking up kids, do computer searches to almost get a drive-through appointment and have enough room in my mother’s home to truly self-isolate. I can’t imagine what the experience is like for someone without these resources or who has more responsibilities than me.

Reach the reporter at mgmcbri1@asu.edu and follow @Mollyymcbride on Twitter.

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