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I Took Up L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti on His Offer of a Free Coronavirus Test

And in the process, I learned that there’s no such thing as a trustworthy, readily available antibody test

I’m pretty sure I don’t need a COVID-19 test. 

I’m actually feeling pretty good these days — despite a stubborn, unrelenting Juul addiction, respiratory pandemic be damned — evidenced by a recent fist pump after dusting a set of Spanxed-out mommy bloggers en route to summiting Mulholland Drive

Still, my mayor, Eric Garcetti, announced Wednesday that L.A. would be the first major U.S. city to offer free COVID testing for all of its residents, and my schedule is stunningly clear these days. Also, I’m confident that the coronavirus spent a long weekend in my left lung last month and left behind some of its precious antibodies, which I’ve heard earns you a charm bracelet from the CDC or something. 

A quick Google search revealed that the COVID-19 diagnostic and antibody tests are completely different and administered separately, but signing up for a COVID-19 test at one of 35 sites in the Southland was a breeze. Although appointments at my first three choices (namely Dodger Stadium) weren’t available until Tuesday, I managed to snag the last slot at AltaMed Medical and Dental Group in nearby Commerce. Figuring there’d surely be a sister testing site for antibodies nearby, on the drive down, I dial 211, the city hotline connecting L.A. residents to social services and disaster support. 

After only 15 minutes on hold — while making record time on a trio of traffic-less L.A. freeways — Sasha, a neighborly city official, breaks the news: “Actually, there is no antibody test,” she delicately explains, recognizing the news is clearly unnerving me. “The FDA, and um, all of them, determined that it’s not a thing anymore.”

Wait a second, I think: Hasn’t the fucking antibody test been promised to restore a shroud of normalcy to our doleful existence? I clearly recall Deborah Birx, strangled in scarves at the White House, evangelizing the omnipotence of fucking ANTIBODIES.

Alas: “At this time,” Sasha corrects my internal monologue, reciting an email she’s just received from the CDC, “widespread serological immuno antibody testing isn’t available and the FDA doesn’t recommend this type of test.” In fact, Sasha clarifies, only clinical laboratories have authority to conduct antibody tests, some of which are shamelessly marketing them to a panic-stricken populace without the blessing of the FDA. 

“But…,” I meekly add, “someone said my doctor could…” 

“I’m sorry, but that was false information,” Sasha responds gently.

As James Hamblin explains in The Atlantic, relying on antibodies to save the day is a “false hope” borne out by science. He’s all for getting an antibody test, “but only if you’re part of a research study where your results are contributing to an understanding of what results actually mean. Otherwise, it’s generally not advisable to get tests unless we know what to do with the results, and we don’t yet.”

Similarly skeptic is Harvard immunology and infectious disease professor Barry R. Bloom, a pioneer in the field of global health. “There are at present huge problems of variability in the [antibody] tests that are available,” he tells me, adding that many kits aren’t sensitive or specific enough to be meaningful. “Regrettably, the FDA hasn’t done comparative testing against a gold standard, and has allowed all of the kits for sale, although few are acceptable under emergency use applications, which means the FDA hasn’t tested them.”

Nonetheless, I continue my drive to Commerce, a bland, industrial part of Southeast L.A., for my regular COVID test, which also once seemed impossible. Once I arrive, a procession of freshly-inked signs command the following: 

  1. Remain in car.
  2. Proceed to station one (proceder a la estación uno).
  3. Roll window halfway up.
  4. Face covering is required at all times.

Twin lines of 20 or so economy cars helmed by masked drivers inch forward as a dozen medical professionals in head-to-toe gowns, masks and face shields await them. My head reflexively cocks sideways as a foreboding, face-shielded nurse approaches my partially-open driver’s-side window. I’m comforted by the humanity of her blue Adidas sneakers and neon baseball hat. She couldn’t be friendlier — or chattier. 

“Woo-wee, it’s been a busy day,” she greets me, clearly beaming behind her mask. “We were in a conference room inside for weeks, but the county started sending us all these patients and it just got crazy because if you test positive, you have to come back again and again and again. Then the government announced that everything would be free, and cars have been lined up onto the street ever since. Do you have any symptoms, Charles?”

Afraid of being turned away by the truth, I recall the most unpleasant components of last month’s malady: high fever, sore throat, dry-ish cough and so on. 

No, I haven’t been out of the country in the past 15 days. 

Yes, my car is silver. 

I don’t think I have any rashes… Is that even a corona thing? 

I’m obviously a little uneasy getting a test that, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t feel critical. But again, Garcetti is now encouraging anyone — even those like me who are asymptomatic — to be tested, despite Sasha warning that some sites are still refusing to see anyone without two or more coronavirus indicators. “They announced that anyone could be tested, but if you go to the website and say you have no symptoms, there are no appointments available,” my friend Alex adds. 

The nurse takes a photo of my driver’s license and asks to do the same of my insurance card. I instinctively balk, confirming that this is, in fact, a free test, right?

“Why does everyone ask me that?!?!” she wonders, her voice growing louder and more annoyed behind the N95. “The only reason we take a picture of your insurance is, God forbid you go to the hospital. Look, someone is funding this, it’s free for you, so you should be happy.” 

I’m directed to drive around the corner to Station Three, where a masculine entity in a baby blue gas mask returns the tenor of the scene back to peppy compassion. “Have you been exposed to COVID?” he asks. 

“Honestly, my symptoms aren’t really severe at all,” I say, coming clean, explaining what I’m really looking for is that sweet, sweet antibody test. 

“We’re not doing antibody tests,” he says, echoing what every city official and medical professional has told me. They were doing antibody tests, but weren’t getting accurate results, he explains. “We didn’t have many to begin with, but then we stopped getting them and haven’t received any in weeks. Have you been in contact with anyone who tested positive for COVID-19?”

“Someone in my office recently tested positive, so…”

“Then we need to test you for sure,” he explains, withdrawing a foot-long Paleolithic Q-tip from a sealed envelope. I lean my head back and say “ahh,” as directed, while the cotton prod is thrusted down my throat as though searching for a lost set of keys in my esophagus. I violently gag a couple times, but the whole thing’s done in seven seconds. 

“Okay, we’ll give you a call in two to three days,” he says matter-of-factly, tapping twice on the hood of the car. 

Flustered and confused, I roll slowly toward a security guard at the exit gate with black scrubs and a white skull emblazoned on his mask, all of which is betrayed by the demeanor of someone greeting a long lost friend at the airport. “Listen…,” he tells me earnestly, openly flouting social-distancing norms by leaning into my car. 

What comes next — the congeniality, randomness and immense peculiarity of it all — takes me aback, but also feels very much in line with the strangeness of the whole COVID-19 testing experience overall. “Be well, man,” he says while raising his thick, black eyebrows. “Eat healthy — vegetables, you know?”

And, he’s sure to add, “Don’t fuck with the prostitutes.”