Just How Easy Is It to Get Tested for Coronavirus in the East Lansing Area?

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

Getting tested has gotten easier. But wait times vary.

On Tuesday, May 26th, Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed Executive Order 2020-104 that expanded testing for COVID-19 in Michigan. The order extends the type of medical professional who can order the test and allows for anyone with reasons to be tested to “receive a test at a community testing location without securing an order from a medical provider in advance.” 

These new directives, aimed at ramping up availability of tests, are part of Whitmer’s stated objective of testing 150,000 Michiganders per day for COVID-19.

But despite the rise in available tests and testing sites, navigating the testing process may seem confusing – even overwhelming. The good news is that getting a test in the East Lansing area is now a pretty straightforward process.

Today we share the stories of several local people who have been tested for an active case of COVID-19 (the nasal swab test) and for past cases of COVID-19 (the blood test for antibodies), including ELi reporters who thought it would be useful to “bleed for local journalism” while finding out if they’ve already had the disease.

Working with the vulnerable and developing symptoms

Even in mid-April, before testing was ramped up, Kara Richards, was able to quickly get a nasal swab test.

Richards runs a transitional housing program for homeless veterans, located inside a homeless shelter. She sought out a test after she started experiencing symptoms.

“My entire body started to ache,” she said. “I had a horrible headache that would last for several days, then let up for a day, then return. I also had a low-grade fever with chills, runny nose, and a dry cough. I would get winded and short of breath just from walking a few steps.”

She decided to get tested because she wanted to “avoid exposing anyone else” with whom she interacted at work. She explained, “Our facility is ‘home’ for Lansing’s most vulnerable during the stay-at-home executive order.” 

To set up a test, Richards signed up on Sparrow Hospital’s website to speak to a doctor. A few hours later she heard from a physician in the Detroit area who determined that, because of her exposure at work and symptoms, she should receive a nasal swab test for active virus.

She drove to Sparrow’s St. Lawrence campus (1210 W. Saginaw St. in Lansing) for a drive-through test. Of the actual testing experience, Richards said, “It was an easy process – pull up, get swabbed, move on. I am very grateful that the nurse was so calming and understanding.”

Gary Caldwell for ELi

The entrance to Sparrow’s St. Lawrence campus drive-through testing.

The physician that Richards first talked to did tell her that the test can return false negatives, and that she should quarantine until she was asymptomatic for 72 hours.

Richards’ test came back in about 48 hours. Due to the severity of her coronavirus-typical symptoms, Richards was surprised when her test result was negative. The nurse who called with the results told her to continue treating her symptoms and to call back immediately if her breathing became difficult.

Richards ultimately felt sick for over three weeks. She would experience periods of feeling mostly recovered, but then her symptoms would return with a spiked fever.

“Once I was asymptomatic for 72 hours, I felt relief,” she told ELi. “I didn’t realize how sick I really was until I finally felt better and had my energy back.”

A food service worker and reporter finds the system easier than he expected

Christopher Wardell is a part-time reporter for ELi, and because of his work as a barista and manager at a cafe and deli, he is classified as an “essential” worker in Michigan.

When Wardell started experiencing symptoms of headache and sore throat in early May, he considered getting tested as “a service to keep not only myself safe, but also [something to be done] with the safety of customers in mind.”

How did he start?

“I decided to do a little research on the Ingham County Health Department’s website, and found a number I could call. Being that it was a Sunday night, there was not anyone available I could speak to, and I got a pre-recorded message. The message explained if you’re experiencing symptoms of the virus, you are encouraged to call your health care provider first.”

Wardell’s experience – which took place before Whitmer’s new orders simplified things – included a few phone calls with different health professionals. The first contact he talked to informed him he was not eligible for a test. But once he explained that he works in food sales, he was transferred to another contact.

Said Wardell, “I received a callback another hour later, and a telehealth call was scheduled for me on Tuesday morning.” The morning after the nasal swab test, he received a message through the Sparrow Health System online patient portal that his test had come back negative.

Drive-through testing in April 2020 (photo by Gary Caldwell for ELi)

The swift testing process surprised him: ‘What struck me about the whole experience was how NOT busy the testing site was. It was myself and one other car waiting to be tested at that particular time.” He “was expecting cars to be lined outside of the parking lot” at the test site.

The lines do vary, as another ELi reporter discovered

Last week, ELi’s Managing Editor Alice Dreger decided to be tested for COVID-19 after suffering from a few days from intermittent chills, a cough, malaise, and shortness of breath after climbing stairs (unusual for her). To figure out the nasal swab testing process, she started – of course – by reading a recent press release at Sparrow’s site.

Dreger then called the phone number provided for testing information (517-371-9500). She spent a total of about ten minutes on the phone being screened and fully entered into the Sparrow computer system. (She was already in their system from routine Sparrow Lab tests in years past.) Dreger had heard the St. Lawrence Sparrow campus drive-through was quick and easy, so she told the telephone screener that she would try that location.

“I drove over there and there was no wait – no other cars there,” she explained. “A guy came out in a hazmat-like suit and he took my license and insurance card in a plastic bag to verify my info. He came back, gave me my cards back, had me tip my head back and he did the swab.”

Photo by Gary Caldwell for ELi.

It was fast: “It took about four minutes total there, and one other car pulled in behind me while I was there.”

Dreger is insured through her spouse’s job at MSU and, like everyone else, she described the nasal swab as unpleasant but bearable. Within eight hours of her test, she had the result: negative.

Testing replaces oil changes at the old Sears building

Testing for the coronavirus antibodies has also become available in the Lansing area. This is a blood test that looks for signs that you’ve had the disease in the past.

Lansing Urgent Care began offering antibody testing on April 29, and Sparrow is now offering it at various locations. On May 19, Sparrow started offering nasal swab and blood tests at the former Sears Auto Center at the Frandor Mall, just over East Lansing’s western border. You drive into a bay and Sparrow staff work with you through your car window.

I am ELi’s Publisher, and my partner and I decided to get to the antibody test, as we both believed we could have had the coronavirus earlier in the winter. In advance of the tests, I called ahead to the Sparrow COVID-19 hotline (877-205-1300) and was given the option of having my doctor call in a referral or talking to a medical professional on staff.

After getting in the system, I was directed to the Frandor drive-through site. I pulled up, told the worker in full PPE my name and birthdate, put out my arm, had my blood drawn, and was soon on my way home. The longest part of the process was waiting in the line.

Gary Caldwell for ELi.

My partner Jon Irvin also preregistered with Sparrow for the test. He was tested the following day but in his case was asked to show his identification. We both received negative results in less than 24 hours. My partner was pleasantly surprised at the quick turn-around time, as he had to wait over two weeks to receive the negative results for a COVID-19 test he took in mid-March through his primary care provider’s office.

Alice Dreger also decided to get an antibody test, in part to report back on the experience. On Monday of this week, she once again called the Sparrow system and was informed the only place to get a drive-through antibody test through Sparrow was the former Sears site.

For her, getting antibody-tested took nearly an hour due to the line. (“I picked the wrong line,” she said. “I always pick the wrong line.”) Within eight hours, she had the result: negative.

So many negatives among people with symptoms?

You may have noticed that all of the tests reported in this article came back negative.

The antibody test being used by Sparrow is considered high-quality. If you test positive, you are estimated to have about an 88 percent chance of actually having had the disease at some point in the past. If you test negative, there is better than a 99 percent chance you have not had the disease.

With the nasal swab tests it’s possible that some came back negative because the person doing the swab didn’t get a good sample. That said, the nasal swab test can return a false negative even with a good sample.

But the negatives are most likely due to the fact that the East Lansing/Lansing area has relatively few active cases of COVID. In other words, all the people in this article with negative results really haven’t had it.

As of today, the Ingham County Health Department COVID-19 “dashboard” is showing only 722 cases in total in the whole county since the count started, with 25 total deaths from the disease in Ingham County, as shown above.

Find out more about testing:

  • If you have a relationship with a primary care provider, consider calling that office to find out whether and how to get tested.
  • You can find a COVID-19 testing site through this State of Michigan website but note you should call the testing site (or the organization running the testing site) before you go.
  • You can reach Sparrow for testing information at 877-205-1300.
  • You can reach the Ingham County Health Department for testing information by calling 517-887-4517.

Christopher Wardell and Alice Dreger contributed reporting to this article.

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