This morning I visited one of the city’s major hospitals for a scheduled out-patient appointment. Having had sniffles and a cough for a few days, I decided to get checked for COVID-19. All those queues on the news, lots of people playing it safe. Seemed like a good idea, especially as I’ve had pneumonia a few times (which is nasty, I can confirm).
Reception directed me to the Emergency Department, where I followed signs to a portable table like a lectern. A sign said, ‘Concierge’. The only person around was a young nurse, fully masked and gowned. She asked me questions.
Are you unwell? I described the symptoms, referring to my respiratory history.
Have you travelled overseas? No, but a client just returned from SE Asia with a cold and cough.
Was that person diagnosed with COVID-19?
I don’t know.
Have you been in direct contact with someone who has tested positive?
Not that I know of.
You don’t fit our criteria for testing.
I frowned, which she could see because I was not wearing a mask.
I’m in a risk group, I have cold/flu symptoms, but you don’t want to test me? I thought the idea was to do more testing. Lots more testing.
I’ll ring the testing clinic, she said.
As I waited, a teenager arrived. The nurse glanced at her. Stay behind the line please! And away from me, I thought.
The concierge got off the phone. I’ll send you up, she said. Put this mask on and go to Emergency.
In ER there was a side room where children and their parents usually wait. It has colourful paintings on the wall. There were no kids there to enjoy the chirpy decor, just a disconsolate twenty-something bloke in a mask. The nurse had a mask too.
Nothing seemed to be happening. I reflected on our Prime Minister’s address to the nation last night. The government is throwing a whole lot of money around, including a big chunk for ‘pop-up’ testing clinics. The Australian Grand Prix has just been cancelled. Will I attend the Record Fair I have booked for two weeks time? What kind of non-perishable food should one have in the larder? The teenage girl arrived and sat down. Now we were three.
A short, very round middle-aged lady donned a disposable gown and mask, then asked our names, which she promptly forgot. I think she was a volunteer. Follow me, she said. Don’t touch anything. Avoid the walls. We are going on a walking train. She sounded like a veteran primary school teacher. Maybe she was.
We were led outside and along a pavement next to the vehicle access road to ER, then under a building and through a door. To swipe us in, she grasped her card through the gown and rubbed it on the sensor. The door opened onto a narrow corridor. Lucky we were walking single file. Our guide held the door open. Walk down, then stop. Don’t stand too close to each other. Don’t touch the walls.
At the front, I went forward and stopped where the corridor was slightly wider, concerned that the rotund staff member would not fit past me. The teenager looked scared. We were in the bowels of the hospital. Down the corridor, single file, rounded a corner and teacher stopped in front of a lift. It was empty except for an ‘OUT OF ORDER’ sign. In you go, she said. Try not to touch anything. Lucky there aren’t ten of us. The young guy next to me was overweight and looked less cocky than five minutes ago. It’s hard to get fresh air through the masks, like breathing through a pillow. The tour leader swiped and the lift doors closed.
When you get out, she instructed, there’ll be people. Keep away from them. Turn right and don’t touch the walls. Why are they obsessed with the walls? Have they just redecorated? I put my hands in my pockets.
At the testing station, mother hen delivered her masked chicks. I was interviewed again, this time by a teenaged doctor. You don’t need testing, he concluded. I felt a bit peeved. Surely in all the time that has passed you could have tested me and ten others? There is almost no-one here and testing is supposed to be a helpful intervention.
Sorry, he said. You don’t meet our criteria, I hope you understand. Actually, I don’t, I said. It may have sounded testy. I’m here, I have cold/flu symptoms, I’m in a high risk group, I’ve had direct contact with someone who returned from SE Asia with cold/flu symptoms.
But this person has not tested positive, he said.
I don’t know that. Maybe she’s in hospital right now.
I’m sorry, he said again. Over his mask, his eyes looked watery, like he was about to cry. It’s all right, it’s not your fault. We only have 900 testing kits, he said. We’re worried we will run out.
Nine hundred testing kits. In a city of five million people. Hope the other hospitals have more.
Off I went to my appointment.
I have not have been tested for coronavirus, and I have a certificate to prove it. How reassuring.