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Hours after a gloved arm reached through a slit in my car’s open window and gently stuck a plastic stick into my left nostril, I could still feel the ghost of the swab lingering near the back of my throat and just beneath my eye.

But there was a bright side to having endured that brief moment of discomfort:

“It’s negative,” a nurse said over the phone Wednesday, two days after I got tested for COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.

Have I already had it and recovered? That’s unclear, and something only an antibodies test might tell me. If I did have it, I didn’t experience any of the dire symptoms we’ve heard and read about on a daily basis since the coronavirus pandemic took hold.


So why did I get the test in the first place?

Last month, Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone announced the city would become the first in the state to offer free testing to all residents, whether or not they felt sick and regardless of their citizenship and health insurance status.

The initiative, according to Curtatone, is part of a multilayered approach to stem the spread of the virus as the state starts to think about reopening the economy.

In some cases, experts say, people can be carriers of the coronavirus without ever exhibiting symptoms. Even so, an asymptomatic person could unknowingly transmit the virus to others, research suggests.

This is what it’s like to get tested for COVID-19
Somerville offered all residents free testing, regardless of whether they’re showing symptoms of COVID-19. So I took them up on the offer. (Video by Steve Annear and Shelby Lum|Globe Staff)

By offering tests to as many people as possible in Somerville — Curtatone and the city secured 3,500 test kits from the state through a partnership with Cambridge Health Alliance, to start — officials can get a better idea of who’s infected, and where.

“No one wants to be the person responsible for getting the grocery store clerk, the postal worker, or one of our family members or elders or neighbors sick,” Curtatone said. “Everybody certainly wants to know [if they have it]. And we as policy makers need to know."


The city is conducting contact tracing when a patient tests positive, reaching out to anyone they may have been in close proximity to so they can isolate. The information is shared with Partners in Health, a group tapped by Governor Charlie Baker to do statewide contact tracing of its own.

Cambridge has since followed suit and has announced free testing for its residents. Curtatone said he hopes Somerville can serve as a model for other communities.

Now, back to the test itself.

I scheduled my appointment at Cambridge Health Alliance’s Somerville campus a few days after Curtatone made the announcement. Doing so meant calling a hot line set up by city officials to make an appointment. When I dialed, I was placed on hold for close to 20 minutes before someone did my intake, which required me to tell them my ethnicity, age, and other personal information.

The first available slot at the Somerville location, which set up its drive-through testing site just behind the main building, wasn’t for an entire week.

“It’s been real busy,” said the woman doing my intake. “We’ve gotten tons of calls.”

Curtatone said that after offering the tests, the city had been flooded with around 900 inquiries.

When the day arrived, I was feeling nervous about going through with it. I had made the mistake of looking up images and videos online of doctors administering the test. In one graphic, it showed just how deep the swab is inserted into a person’s nose.


I shook the expectations from my mind and drove to the site (you can also do walk-up or bike-up tests in Somerville), where I was directed into a long line of waiting vehicles.

As I sat in my idling car, hospital staff in protective gear walked from vehicle to vehicle, checking in patients. To verify my address and identity, I held my driver’s license up against my car window while a woman took down the information.

I anxiously inched along for about 15 minutes, until it was finally my turn. A large white tent bustling with activity was just to my left. Suddenly, a health care worker in protective gear that looked like it was from “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” emerged and appeared at my window.

Through his layers of protection, the doctor instructed me to roll down my window slightly and pull off my face mask just enough so that my nose was exposed.

“It might be easiest for you to kind of breathe through it and close your eyes," advised the muffled voice on the other side of the window. “Whenever you’re ready.”

As I dipped my head back, his arm came through the window, and like a gnat going up my nose I felt the slight tickle of the swab.


Then the countdown began. The doctor started at 10, and turned the swab backand-forth like he was very gently tightening a screw. I kept my breath steady. I thought about summer.

And then: “That’s it,” the doctor said. My eyes twitched a bit as the swab left my nose. The aftermath was similar to the sensation of unexpectedly taking in a noseful of ocean water at the beach.

The doctor told me I would get results within five days and handed me a sheet of paper with home care instructions that mostly listed guidelines for people with symptoms of the virus.

Because I hadn’t been feeling sick, I wasn’t entirely worried about the results. Still, with what we now know about COVID-19, the thought of testing positive lingered in the back of my head, somewhere near where the swab had landed.

Two days later, well before I expected to hear back, my phone began to vibrate. I didn’t recognize the number. It was a nurse, and she gave me the news: all clear.

Back to social distancing and wearing my homemade plaid mask.

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.