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Nasal swabbing is the new Rhode Island rite of passage

A first-hand account of drive-through testing shows the process is pretty quick and painless, with a twist

A member of the Rhode Island National Guard greeted a visitor at a drive-through coronavirus testing site in Lincoln.
A member of the Rhode Island National Guard greeted a visitor at a drive-through coronavirus testing site in Lincoln.Steven Senne/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE -- It was over before you could say “nasopharyngeal.”

Of course, that’s a pretty long word, and it’s impossible to say when you have an industrial-grade Q-tip shoved up your nose.

But let’s just say that although getting tested for the coronavirus was pretty quick and painless, I wasn’t expecting the swab to tickle the underside of my brain and I was surprised when the tester gave the swab a twist up in the DMZ of my sinuses.

Hey, now!

At this point, more than 20 percent of Rhode Islanders have been tested for COVID-19 — the highest rate in the nation. So while this might be the smallest state, let there be no doubt: We are big on nasal swabbing.

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That’s not to say everyone enjoys the experience. During Monday’s coronavirus news conference, the state Department of Health director was asked if there are other alternatives since some find the tests upsetting.

“There are,” Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said. “We recognize that the type of testing that you are referring to is called a nasopharyngeal test. It’s a longer swab that tests into the back of the throat by going in through the nose.”

A lot of data is available on that type of test, and it has shown to be the most accurate, she said. But the state’s COVID-19 Testing and Validation Task Force has been looking at other options, and says that it’s OK to start shifting to a more comfortable nasal swab test.

With that alternative test, the swab goes only as far as the front of the nose, Alexander-Scott said. “It is the same kind that people do when they do self-swabbing at the rapid test sites,” she said. “So we hope to continue to expand that as we go forward.”

For many Rhode Islanders, this is news you can use.

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State officials are urging the thousands of people who attended recent Black Lives Matter rallies to get tested. And to help create an “early warning system,” they are recommending that people without symptoms get tested if they work in child care, restaurants, gyms, barbershops, hairdressers, and other “close-contact” businesses.

As of Monday, 3,190 tests had been scheduled for asymptomatic people in those categories, Department of Health spokesman Joseph Wendelken said. About half of those people indicated that they had recently been in a large crowd, he said. The state had results for 1,543 of those, and only four people have tested positive, he said.

After covering three protests, with crowds as large as 10,000 people, I figured I’d go for a test at Rhode Island College.

So I scheduled the test on the Department of Health online portal. At RIC, members of the Rhode Island National Guard checked my ID through my car window and directed me to two lines of vehicles in a parking lot near the tennis courts. I passed through one white tent, where a Guardsman checked my ID again and placed a test kit in a bag on my windshield.

I pulled forward to a larger white tent, where a man wearing a white Tyvek suit and a face shield opened the test kit and told me to tip my head back. In all, the swabbing took a couple of seconds. I never got out of my car. And the whole process took about half an hour.

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After getting tested on a Friday, I received the results the following Wednesday, which seemed slow. I found it impossible to get the results online through Current Care. But when I contacted the East Side Clinical Laboratory, they provided the results online within a couple of hours: The test came back negative.

In 2020, with graduations and weddings on hold, the nasopharyngeal swab might just be Rhode Island’s new rite of passage.

I recommend it. On one hand, a positive test provides crucial health information. And if the test comes back negative, well, Q-tipping your brain seems like an easy way to get some peace of mind.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com