With the number of confirmed coronavirus cases on the rise, industry tradeshows getting cancelled and travel restrictions tightening, many have asked what we can do to seize the upper hand on this fast-spreading virus.

As a father who just witnessed the COVID-19 testing process firsthand, I’d like to share our story, if for no other reason than to depict the way the virus has impacted life – but also in the event that our experience might be helpful in improving the overall response to this outbreak.

The World Health Organization yesterday declared coronavirus a global pandemic, but community transmission remains a concern. Here in northern New Jersey, our state and municipal health departments have done a good job of curbing large gatherings such as school fairs, and coordinating with those schools to communicate changes to parents in a timely manner. 

We receive word of these kinds of changes in memos from the neighborhood school. Of local import and appearing right in our inboxes, the emails have become our go-to information source amidst a sea of media reports amplifying updates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health and W.H.O.

And that’s exactly how we were informed, on Friday, March 6, that someone with the COVID-19 virus had been present at a party my son attended a few days before. 

The memo went on to state that anyone concerned about possible exposure – but who did not have “close contact” with the affected individual – should monitor for symptoms and contact their PCP if symptoms develop. We followed this advice, which seemed to us to be sound. 

The advice, developed in concert with our state’s department of health protocol, stopped short of recommending that someone matching our son’s description quarantine at home. Then, over the weekend, his status changed. My pre-teen son, an athletic kid with a penchant for pick-up basketball, subsequently developed a runny nose and fatigue, symptoms too mild to warrant an ER visit. 

But, we were told, he should be tested because he had been in a place where someone tested positive. After some initial confusion about where this would take place – not enough offices had yet been set up with testing kits – on Tuesday morning came “the call.”

We were advised to report to the testing location by 1 PM and that a sort of drive-through coronavirus test would be arranged. We arrived early, texted the nurse and were told to remain in our car, right outside the door to the medical building (with my son in the backseat and the window rolled down). 

After several minutes, a physician eventually emerged, dressed head-to-toe in surgical attire. Reaching through the car window, the doctor administered multiple swabs on my son: one in the throat for strep and one in each nostril for flu, with the nose swabs repeated for COVID-19.

This clinician showed great empathy, using soothing words like “I’m sorry I have to do this, sweetie,” and conducting herself as pleasantly as she could under the circumstances. My kid, ever the trooper, put on a brave face throughout the ordeal (although I heard a slight gasp as the second set of nasal swabs was being taken). 

Results for coronavirus, we learned, would not be forthcoming until Friday – three days after testing. That turnaround has since been altered by the private lab company to “72 hours, but we’ll try for 48.”

Where does that leave us? Still awaiting results, as of this posting, and feeling a bit in limbo. Should my son’s test come back positive, I and the rest of the family will need to go into isolation for two weeks. In the meantime, I’m doing what any other person facing a possible 14-day quarantine would do: some serious reflecting. 

The mode of testing itself, although a bit of a surreal experience, was actually quite efficient and anonymous – although anyone who’s had a Q-tip stuck up their nose as far as their throat will tell you, it’s pretty uncomfortable. As for me, I resisted the urge to break the tension by asking our car-side clinician, “Can I get fries with that?” (This was no time for dad jokes.)

Among the hallmarks of a good response to novel coronavirus is rapid diagnosis. But our country is severely behind in testing. We need more test kits and testing centers. 

We also need quicker turnaround on results. Some are able to get results in hours; others, like us, must wait days, depending on where they Iive. 

One of the problems with a three-day lag is that, by the time we get the results, if the result is positive it’s going to be nearly impossible to do contact tracing – tracking who my son came into contact with – since initial exposure came more than 10 days prior and our son didn’t self-quarantine until he developed symptoms, as per DOH guidelines.  

That brings me to containment policy. Efforts known as social distancing have been shown to slow a virus’ spread at the community level. 

The department of health, by way of our school, reminded us that anyone who had been in “close contact” with an individual who has tested positive for the COVID-19 virus should self-quarantine until symptoms develop. “Close contact” was defined as being within about six feet of the affected person for 10 minutes or more. Our son did not meet that definition (see above).

However, if an asymptomatic person can transmit coronavirus through a simple cough or sneeze, then this definition needs to become a lot less conservative. Criteria for who gets tested, likewise, still seems too limited. Isolation and testing go hand in hand. It’s in our collective best interest to diagnose and quarantine affected individuals asap before they spread it widely.  

Delays in implementing these efforts have serious repercussions. Just look at a country like Italy, which went into lockdown mode this week as the number of cases soared past 10,000. 

Despite everyone’s best efforts, there remains a great deal of uncertainty about this virus. Until research yields more answers and drugs become available, public health experts are stressing the need to slow its transmission through the above defensive tactics. 

Meanwhile, we’re left to fall back on advice like that of our state DOH, which noted that the best way to prevent spread of disease is not to keep the well at home, but rather to keep the ill out of public spaces. Here’s hoping I’m able to move safely between the two over the next couple of weeks, and that we see a speedy end to the novel coronavirus pandemic and the terrible toll it’s taking around the world.

This article was updated to clarify the procedure used for viral testing.