By Austin Ferguson
The last thing someone wants to see is a positive test result for the coronavirus next to their name.
In September, this is exactly what happened to my father. Though all of his subsequent tests for COVID-19 came back negative, possibly indicating a false positive, that initial result was a reality check for the rest of the Ferguson family.
Sure, we were all doing what we were supposed to be doing — wearing masks, sanitizing, keeping social distance, avoiding crowded areas when possible — but having a positive case strike this close, or in this case, in my home, gave perspective to what exactly was and is at stake for every person during this pandemic.
About a month later, Rider reached out with an email looking for volunteers for a new program: surveillance testing. For most students, that term was new in the context of Rider’s guidelines to mitigating the spread of COVID-19. As a journalist, I had known for a few weeks that they were going to be rolling out a trial of a random testing program.
As soon as I had received the email with an opportunity to sign up, I did. I had plenty of reason to be excited about this program, outside of the promised prizes from the Student Government Association.
Professionally, the opportunity to go through a volunteer testing program presented an interesting opportunity to cover a small part of what is an unprecedented time in human history. Since I had not been long exposed to my father before his positive test, the experience would also be new; this surveillance test would be the first time I was ever being tested for COVID-19.
Two days after signing up for the program, I received another email from Rider’s COVID-19 Case Manager Chris Botti notifying that I had received the first testing date the school had scheduled — Oct. 13.
With only a few days between finding out about the test and the day of the test, there was not much time for me to process or feel nervous about the situation. Life found a way to change that, as the company that was originally scheduled to complete the test had not completed all of its requirements to administer tests in New Jersey, which pushed my test back 10 days to Oct. 23.
With over a week to wait for the test and the random aspect of the testing all but gone, nerves began to set in. I was excited to be able to document my experience for possible future generations to read, but I wanted to be sure not to turn this story into a tragedy. I did everything in my power, with more careful consideration than before, to mitigate the risk of returning a positive test in time for my 22nd birthday.
One sure positive out of the date change was the change in provider for the tests. Instead of the dreaded nasal test, I would now be taking a saliva kit test, which would bring a lot more comfort to my experience.
After an apprehensive, yet eager 10 days, the morning of Oct. 23 came. As soon as the testing window began at 10:30 a.m., I made my way to Alumni Gym, a place I was very familiar with after spending a season covering the men’s basketball team.
A place I was not familiar with, however, was the practice court behind the gym, where my test was administered. A few signs in the grass pointed me in the right direction of what felt like a backroom bar with a secret password to enter, except instead of coming in to enjoy a drink, I would be spending the next 10 minutes spitting into a vial to find out if I have been secretly sick.
Once I entered, a cheery nurse was there to welcome me. She had asked for my name, which was conveniently at the top of her list for that day. She handed me a kit and began to give instructions on how to properly use the saliva test.
I had looked down at the kit only to realize that it was identical to a kit I used for an Ancestry DNA test in June, down to the solution used to mix into the spit. I admittedly zoned out from the nurse’s instructions from that point until she had given me the go-ahead to find a seat and take my test.
There were plenty of spots to choose from. With over 4,700 square feet of space, chairs were spread out across the court with at least 10 feet of space in between them, so social distancing was not an issue. In this instance, space was not going to be an issue regardless, as I was one of three people in the gym taking the test, matching the number of nurses present.
I had walked over to a near corner of the court and made myself as comfortable as I could on a cushioned folding chair with a slightly weathered, yet surprisingly clean ‘Rider’ across the back and an older version of the recognizable university tree logo, accompanied by the writing of “Rider University Athletics” on the seat.
After I sat down, but before I could open the kit and begin the test, I looked up at a banner facing opposite of me. It was a large banner of the namesake of the practice court, former Rider basketball great Jason Thompson.
So there I was, in a chair probably older than me, with Jason Thompson staring me down as I repeatedly spit into a tube. If you had presented that situation to anyone, let alone myself, I would dismiss it as a bizarre fever dream. With the improbable situation 2020 has planted on the world, however, that situation was me, your average college student, taking an active part in an ongoing historic event.
I had found myself grasping for saliva toward the end of the test when the nurse noticed I was struggling.
“If you start pushing on the inside of your cheek, you’ll create more saliva,” he told me.
For an odd reason, I had doubted the solution was that simple, but sure enough, I took his advice and easily finished the test.
Once my vial was full and sealed, I brought it to a back table for final packing, where they would ship the sample off to California for analysis. When I got to the table, an assistant was quick to finish the process for me, apologizing while doing it.
“My apologies, I tend to take over on things,” she said, with a bit of nervous laughter.
The test was now out of my hands, so I left the gym, making sure to thank everyone on my way out. As I left, I thought I had conquered the most nerve-wracking part of the process. The minute I got back to my dorm room, I had the realization that the worst part was yet to come — the wait.
I had remembered hearing that the test would process in 72 hours, so I felt I had nothing to worry about until then. I enjoyed a weekend at home with family to celebrate my birthday early, as my birthday was just going to have to be another Tuesday in class and at work.
The day before my birthday came, and I knew I was due to hear a result. Around noon, I got the email notification from the testing company, I took a deep breath and looked at the subject of the email, ready for what was sure to be a negative result.
“Lab Received your COVID-19 Test Kit.”
I continued into the body of the email, ready to find out my fate.
“Our lab will begin analyzing your saliva collection immediately,” the email began. “Please allow up to three days for processing.”
The wait continues.