This article was originally published in December of 2020.
Almost two weeks ago, I thought that I might have been exposed to someone with the COVID infection. I waited for a week and then my wife, Laurene, and I went to a nearby testing site—consisting of a dozen trailers in what had been an empty lot. This was right before Thanksgiving and the line for rapid testing wound around the block. We had planned on getting the standard PCR test, because we had read that it was considered to be more accurate—especially when it came to negative results. We were relieved when we turned a corner and found out that the line for the standard test was only about ten deep. It was a pleasant enough day and the wait outside for about a half hour wasn’t so bad.
When we got to the entrance, Laurene was waved in but I was left standing at the front of the line. A few minutes later, a man who didn’t appear to be part of the routine operation came to the line and told a half dozen of us to follow him to a trailer at the far end of the lot—passing by others who had entered the site but were still waiting to be called. When we got to the trailer, he told the first three of us that we should go into the trailer and sit at the ends of two long tables. At that point, there was part of me that thought something was not right. You see, Laurene and I had been at this testing site back in September when we brought three of our grandkids to be tested before school started. Then, we all stood outside open windows of a trailer while the kids were registered and tested. How come today I’m being brought into a room? Social distancing be damned! I said nothing because I was still mostly grateful that I had skipped the line.
I was first up to be checked in and tested. The warning lights started flashing again. The man doing the testing had an all but impossible time getting my email address correct—even though he kept insisting that it was the most important piece of information because that was how I’d get the results. After five or six tries, I looked at it once more and said that I thought it was right. Then, another surprise! Instead of him inserting the swab, he opens the tube and tells me to take the swab and rub it around inside each nostril ten times. I’m testing myself? When we came with our grandkids, a nurse administered the test. But I do as I’m told and put the swab back in the tube. The man tells me that I’ll get a confirmation email of the test later that day and another email with the results within a couple of days. Finally, he hands me a slip of paper with a gobbledy-gook code on one side and a handwritten ID for me to use when I get my results. Foolish me, I assume that this is all going to be obvious!
I get done before Laurene and go to our car to wait for her. Ten minutes later, she comes out and, as we talk about what we went through, it seems like we’ve just been to two different testing sites. She stayed outside the trailer; she saw several different staffers who confirmed her information; a nurse used a swab for the test; she got signed up for the Health and Hospital Corporation’s MyChart—which is where she’ll get her results. What’s worse, she got a shopping bag branded with the HHC Test & Trace logo and a couple of free masks courtesy of The Gap! I only got a sneaking suspicion that something was not right.
Then we wait. Come the evening of the next day, Laurene gets her results—“no sign of the virus.” I get nothing except a bit more nervous. I try to sign up for MyChart (about which I had heard nothing). I make a mess of it. I get a message that HHC cannot send me an activation code for at least a week. I try a couple more times but hear nothing. At this point, I do what every New Yorker does who is completely confused about what the city is doing—I call 311. I get a nice guy who has no idea what I should do. He suggests that I go back to the testing site but he has no information about its hours on Thanksgiving.
Early Thursday morning, I drive to the site. It’s locked up tight. Back to waiting until Friday! Early Friday, I drive back. Everyone I talk to is sympathetic but they can’t find any record of my test. Then someone asks—did you do the swab yourself. Aha! That’s the difference. You have to see the people in the last trailer. They bring me there and do the necessary intros. From a window, while I stand outside, a nurse asks me why I’m there. She asks for my email address—she gets it right. There is no record of my test. I explain that I was tested a few days earlier but haven’t received my result but my wife has. The nurse tries to convince me that my wife had the rapid test. I tell her once that she’s wrong but give up quick. I ask her about MyChart. She tells me that they don’t do MyChart; they do Picture Genetics. She shows me a little Picture Genetics box with the instructions that I didn’t get. What is Picture Genetics? The only thing I know for sure, at that point, is that it’s a test that’s not administered by HHC.
Then, the nurse tells me that the reason why they place so much emphasis on getting the email address right is that they send an email message to make sure that it’s the right address. Apparently, it has never occurred to them that if the message is not delivered, the address isn’t right and they should do something else. I tell her that I was in the same trailer that she’s sitting in on Tuesday and had the test. I plead—isn’t there any other way to find my test result; you have my address and cell phone number. NO! A nice enough no, but still no! I ask if there’s a manager at the testing site. They send me down a path beside the trailers.
I encounter a nice woman sitting watch outside a trailer and ask for the manager. He comes out right away and says that there’s nothing he can do. The folks in the last trailer are beyond his control. I ask if he thinks I should get re-tested with the HHC folks. He says yes and he brings me right over to a window. I see three people and they’re all on top of their games. No mistakes; no stumbles; and a test—with results in one to two days.
Back to waiting! But this time, not waiting without end! Late Saturday, I get an email from HHC that my results are available in MyChart—“no sign of virus.” Of course, I’m relieved but, me being me, that’s not the end of my story.
I check out Picture Genetics on the web; it’s made by Fulgent Genetics, a company that has recently become a very profitable firm (or, perhaps better said, whose stock value has skyrocketed)—because of its marketing of an at-home COVID test. Their web page is very attractive but, unfortunately, it doesn’t include an image of the box that its COVID test comes in. But it still dawns on me. When I went back to the testing site, the nurse from Picture Genetics opened the same box that the man who tested me opened on the first day—to show me how they did their test. The first time, I paid no attention—chalk it up to nervousness. The second time, I paid some attention. How come he didn’t give me the information bulletin in the box? Finally, I realized that the box was an advertisement—suitable for display in one of those supposedly cute TV commercials. Inside, it had a brochure, some fancy codes on sheets and the swab. It was mostly empty. The fact of the matter is that the box probably cost more than the test swab. It was intended for use at home so they needed to sell it to unwitting customers—what better than an empty box with a nice design.
I also learned that, in early September, Fulgent Genetics obtained a contract with NYC’s Health & Hospitals Corporation to do the tests of students in the city’s public schools. More recently, another press release announced that travellers on Jet Blue at JFK Airport would get a free test kit when they boarded selected flights to self-administer the test when they were returning to the city—so they could get out of the required quarantine more quickly if they tested negative. It’s not clear from the press release but it seems like the free trial may well be followed by a pay-for-yourself plan in the days to come. For Fulgent, the virus is the gift that keeps on giving.
The funniest thing in the press release is a claim that the arrangement with Fulgent includes “clinician support by Picture Genetics.” I guess that’s what I got.
I haven’t been able to find out how the Picture Genetics test was introduced into an HHC testing site. As I mentioned, no one at the site appeared to know much about them. I had been one of the unlucky ones who got to get the Picture Genetics test without knowing what it was. I have no idea how many others got sent their way at testing sites without ever hearing about their test results. For me, this was an exasperating experience. For others, it may have been much worse.