Nothing prepares you for a Covid-19 sample collection – not even watching your friend go through it. It’s uncomfortable, and the worst part is the anxiety of waiting for the result.
Heck, I dare say that the rush of fear, anxiety and probably guilt that comes with first-time voluntary HIV testing is nothing compared to the rush of emotions I felt over the possibility that my Covid-19 result could be positive.
I say this not to scare you, dear reader, but to prepare you because as Kenya enters the third month since the first confirmed Covid-19 case was reported in the country, the government plans to ramp up the so-called targeted mass testing in estates.
It’s been 37 days since I went to Pathologists Lancet Kenya in Upper Hill, Nairobi to have my samples collected and tested for Covid-19. After postponing the test four times, I finally mustered the courage to get tested.
“It will be okay Merab. The procedure is similar to you picking up a cotton bud to clean your ear,” Dr Ahmed Kalebi, Lancet’s East Africa CEO, reassured me. So I took the plunge and sat on the plastic chair under a tent outside the 5th Avenue Office Suites building.
After walking me through a set of questions to find out if I had any recent travel history to countries that had active Covid-19 cases and whether I had come into contact with someone who has tested positive for the disease, Anne, the lab technician, asked me to lift my chin to enable her to look through my nose and my throat.
While different diagnostic tests can be used to identify the coronavirus, health workers have been taking nasopharyngeal swabs of suspected people to detect early cases. But many people fear the pain and discomfort of the process.
Despite not having a recent travel history, I chose to voluntarily undertake the test. As a journalist, I am an essential service provider and if I was to maintain physical distance to avoid getting exposed and infected, I wanted to be sure that I was not incubating the virus.
What followed caught me unprepared! Anne gently inserting a nasopharyngeal swab into my nose and gently spinning it to get a sample from the upper part of my throat behind the nose (the area is known as the nasopharynx).
I immediately felt a sharp pain that I can only compare to the feeling you experience when you are accidentally pricked. Then I felt a sudden urge to sneeze and suddenly, I was teary.
These sensations happened in quick succession and faded minutes after the completion of the process. Some people, however, do not not flinch. People differ in their ability to detect, tolerate, and respond to pain, Dr Kalebi told me as I dried my eyes.
Next came the oropharyngeal swab. I opened my mouth, stuck my tongue out and said “Ahh” as instructed. This was to enable the technician to collect samples from the part of my throat at the back of the mouth behind the oral cavity (the part is known as the oropharynx). Unlike the previous process, I had no reaction to this one.
Dr Kalebi explained why: “Unlike the throat, the nose has very sensitive nerve endings and cilia designed to keep any foreign objects away”. Deep in our noses, there are tiny hairs called cilia that constantly wave back and forth to catch dangerous particles in mucus. But this sensitivity is a double-edged sword. Dr Kalebi notes that whereas it helps protects the lungs, respiratory viruses multiply in the nose.
My samples were part of a larger collection of 95 other samples that had been collected that day and I was informed to expect my result by midnight. So at the stroke of midnight, I eagerly opened my Gmail account to see if the result had been emailed to me, only to find out that there was a technical hitch at Lancet.
I eventually received my result 26 hours later and thankfully, it was negative. However, there was a caveat: “a not detected result does not exclude infection with SARS-CoV-2”, the virus that causes Covid-19.
The Health ministry is currently using a three-pronged approach in testing for Covid-19. It is carrying out surveillance to trace and test the contacts of people who have tested positive. In addition, it is doing testing on people placed in quarantine. The third approach is targeted testing in areas where there is established transmission.
Acting Health Director-General Patrick Amoth has said that voluntary testing for Covid-19 is “not encouraged at government laboratories at the moment”. However, you can get the tests done at accredited private labs for between Sh8,000 and Sh13,000.