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A test in California
Our co-founder was Stateside visiting family. This is an account of his attempt to get a Covid-19 test done in the world’s most advanced country
Good morning! A big hello to readers who signed up this week. Welcome to The Intersection, The Signal's weekend edition. This weekend we report straight from the US where Omicron has hindered daily lives again. Also in today’s edition: we have handpicked the best of weekend reads for you.
If my visit to the US had to be a meme, it would read somewhat like this:
How it started: A scramble to get to the US before the gates closed.
How it's going: A merry-go-round to get a Covid-19 test done.
How it’s ending: I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but I’m sure this is how it would feel like to be stuck in a never-ending Nicholas Cage movie.
Thankfully, my test results are negative, but it still doesn’t mean I am in the clear. I just postponed my tickets.
Coming To The US
I'd been waiting for more than seven months to visit my family in the US and found my first window of opportunity when the US said it would lift its travel ban in November last year. I had seen my new-born nephew only on Facetime. So I booked myself on a flight to California as soon as I could.
As luck would have it, a new variant—Omicron—surfaced in South Africa in late November. Designated a “variant of concern” by the WHO, it spread faster than the deadly Delta. Countries reacted swiftly. India stepped up medical surveillance. The US banned flights from southern African nations. The travel window could close.
I was literally on a wing and a prayer. I spent every hour tracking Omicron numbers in the US and India, eyes peeled to aviation sites for travel advisories. The only change was an RT-PCR test 24 hours ahead of travel. In the end I did board the flight as planned. And hey, it was Christmas. So I naturally had to play Santa Claus from India with a sack full of eats from Mangalore Stores.
Being In The South Bay
California, and more specifically San Francisco, had one of the first confirmed instances of Omicron in the US. The state has a mask mandate, and people largely seem to be following it.
Retail establishments shut fairly early, so it feels like a night curfew, something I was accustomed to in India. Home to some of the most valuable technology companies in the world, Bay Area workers are see-sawing between returning to office and WFH.
I’ve always had great admiration for the US and its technological prowess. The Bay Area is to a tech enthusiast what MOMA is to an art lover. I have aspired for an always-plugged-in lifestyle in India. Yet, these few weeks in the world’s cradle of technology was a reminder to be careful what I wish for.
The first couple of weeks passed without incident. Omicron cases were being reported but nobody we knew were infected. We took precautions and carried on with life in this new normal. We met people in their homes and also went to San Diego for Christmas. At San Diego, it was business as usual. We spent Christmas day at SeaWorld and next morning waited for nearly three hours to have traditional Mexican Chilaquiles for breakfast.
And Then It Hits
The first shocker came when the US reported 1 million cases on January 3, 2022. Even though there was a backlog and delayed reporting, it is a figure that India hadn’t reached even at the peak of the Delta wave.
Soon, our social group was falling like dominoes. A child’s birthday party my sister attended was our first brush with a Covid-19 infection.
We would meet people because they had tested negative, but days later when they tested again, they turned out to be infected. An 8-month-old baby and its parents we met were now positive. It was panic time.
We had been to a Bollywood dance class and later found that an Omicron-infected person was in attendance too. Although only one participant tested positive the first time, others were confirmed infected later. It was not a matter of if, but a matter of when.
When I landed in the US in December 2021, testing was a breeze. I got an appointment for the next day and went through the driveway line pretty quickly. The results came in the next day.
The California Government has a website where people can search for a location and get an appointment. Testing is free but results take a long time. Private testing with quick results cost $165 apiece.
Anticipating that we may need to test for Covid-19, we had ordered home test kits on Amazon which were expected to arrive in the first week of January 2022. They did not and the dates kept getting pushed further. We knew we were in for some tough times when we began hearing about exposure from friends and relatives. We also started developing symptoms.
My sister reached out to practically everyone she knew at work and in her wide social circle for a test kit. She even tried the Konkani community network to which we belong. A response came after two days but from about a 100 km away. She drove nearly 200 kms to get two test kits.
A day before we had stood for four hours in the California sun to get into a walk-in facility at the Great Mall in Milpitas, a popular destination for Indians. After four hours in line we were nowhere close to even the perimeter of the testing centre. The line kept lengthening as more people joined those already waiting up front. That would have caused a furore in India, but here patience won out.
We spent hours on the Covid-19 testing website to find a slot. When I finally found one, it was five days later, with another three days lag for results. Given that even quarantine protocol is just five days, symptoms would tell me earlier than a test result if I’m positive. But I had to get a test done as I was traveling back to India. I opted for a paid one but getting an appointment was still a struggle.
It was a game of fastest finger first. Or like booking a Tatkal train ticket. The slots opened at midnight. So, at the stroke of midnight you scramble on the website. After some initial hiccups, we got a slot.
At this point in the US, it is easier to get a vaccine than a Covid-19 test. The blame lies with how the US approached testing. The government pays for vaccines but does not oversee and pay for universal at-home testing.
Test kits available online will take at least two weeks to arrive. Two years and two deadly viral storms later, the testing system in arguably the world’s most technologically advanced country is broken and how!
Negative Is Still Not Positive
The reliability of home tests is suspect although they are often the only option available. Several people we know have tested negative in rapid home tests only to test positive later.
We mostly stayed indoors and were always masked outdoors. Although we have all tested negative, a doubt still nags: Is it really negative or is the virus gestating? One can never be sure.
I might sound like a wide-eyed, shake-my-head-in-disbelief noob but the fact is that the pandemic has laid bare how deeply flawed the US healthcare system is. It is ill-equipped to handle crises. The US has racked up the world’s highest death toll even though it’s at the forefront of vaccine and drug discoveries. It has a just under double the number of cases and deaths than India which has more than four times its population. Its death rate per million population is second only to Brazil’s. That says something about the world’s most powerful nation.
Illustration: Debarati Bhattacharjee
Graphics: Manaswini Tripathy
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