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Drive-in Covid-19 test is no easy ride

Ciaran Barnes

Concerns that NI's testing capacity isn't being exploited as our man goes through invasive procedure after flu-like symptoms


Sunday Life reporter Ciaran Barnes was tested for Covid-19

Sunday Life reporter Ciaran Barnes was tested for Covid-19

Getty Images

Sunday Life reporter Ciaran Barnes was tested for Covid-19

Sunday Life's chief reporter Ciaran Barns was tested for the coronavirus at a drive-through centre a few days ago after displaying mild flu-like symptoms. He didn't have to wait long but it was a much more uncomfortable and invasive procedure than he expected:

You would think a neighbour's house almost burning down would be the most interesting event to happen during a boring lockdown Groundhog day.

But it wasn't, because less than an hour later I was tested for Covid-19.

Having to drive to the nearest test centre in Ballymena was somewhat embarrassing. After all, I'm a journalist who is fortunate to be able to work from home - a comforting refuge a world away from the coronavirus hospital front line.

My better half works for the health service, so when I started to show mild flu-like symptoms at the beginning of last week she was obliged to report it to her bosses or face two weeks of self-isolation with our son.

A few minutes later came a phone call from test centre staff and it was off to the Braid Valley Hospital for my drive-through appointment.

I arrived early, anticipating a long queue of cars filled with key workers. The reality could not have been more different. There was just one vehicle ahead of me in a virtually empty car park which was bathed in the afternoon spring sunshine.

It was another minute before I was seen by a tester dressed in full PPE (personal protection equipment), including mask, visor and gown.

She instructed me to wind up the window and open the driver's door fully. Producing a long, lance-like swab about four times the size of a cotton ear-bud, the tester calmly talked me through the procedure.

One of the swabs would be placed down my throat to the point at which I gagged, while the other would be put as far up each nostril as it would fit. This, she explained, was invasive but necessary to get a true reading.

There have been worrying tales coming out of other test centres of people with virus symptoms being asked to self-test.

This, my experience taught me, could easily lead to false readings because many people would be reluctant to be so aggressive on themselves with the equipment.

The testing process was uncomfortable and lasted around a minute. I declined the offer of taking a break between each swab, preferring to get it over with as quickly as possible.

When the tester was finished she explained that I would receive a telephone call with my results within 48 hours. This duly arrived at 12.54pm on April 23, with confirmation that I did not have Covid-19.

That, of course, was hugely reassuring, but I am left with the lingering feeling that the test was wasted on me. Surely it would make more sense to take regular samples from healthcare workers battling the virus on a daily basis in hospitals and care homes?

Judging by how empty the Ballymena drive-through centre was last Wednesday, this is surely possible.

A friend who works at the Royal Victoria Hospital expressed similar concerns.

He too has warned how workers at some of the other drive-through centres in Northern Ireland lack the required PPE and because of this are asking people to test themselves - something that could lead to false readings.

Although heartened by the news that I am free of Covid-19, I am also left with serious concerns that Northern Ireland's testing capacity is not being fully exploited.

Even more worrying is how a lack of PPE for some test centre staff could result in people with the virus being given a clean bill of health after being asked to carry out swab tests themselves.

Belfast Telegraph