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Where Are the Damn PCR Tests Already? It’s Been 21 Months!

The staggering lack of easily available testing remains a glaring national crisis.

A student is administered a test by a Wild Health nurse during a COVID-19 testing day at Brandeis Elementary School on August 17, 2021, in Louisville, Kentucky.

When I look back on the prior two years — if I’m around to look back — I’m going to remember these last few days as the moment I met peak frustration and bade it come sit a spell. I’m used to blaming Donald Trump when I achieve this level of aggravation, but the Biden administration a year after Trump’s departure has some serious explaining to do.

I’ve been a good soldier all throughout the long slog of COVID, got my shot times three, got my daughter vaxxed, wore my mask and social distanced, stayed away from people when possible, and home-schooled my daughter when needed. Twice, once in late spring and again in early fall of this year, both times with COVID on the low bound, I had to get my daughter PCR tested so she could return to school. She was showing symptoms, and only a negative PCR test with its nifty jab up the nose was acceptable proof of health.

Both times, in a hospital parking lot and then at a Convenient MD storefront, she got the tests and results within hours. Based on this experience and what I’d been reading in the news, I assumed the issue of insufficient testing was taken care of, at least on the supply side and at least in my immediate region. I’d found available tests on the same day, twice, a few blocks from my house. That’s how it’s supposed to be. That’s how we beat this thing.

That is not how it is here anymore, and in too many places around the country.

Classroom close contact early last week with a kid who has COVID put my daughter on the watch list; the incubation period meant no PCR test until the weekend. The school could, and did, perform antigen tests on the kids, but they are not nearly as accurate. “More of a snapshot,” the nurse told me. Every health professional I consulted recommended “stay the course,” keep her in school, masked and distanced — her teacher is a remorseless autocrat about this, thank God — and so we watched and waited.

As the weekend arrived, so did symptoms for both of us — but only some of them: cough, runny nose, sore throat, fatigue. We both retained our sense of taste and smell, never came close to popping a fever, and in any other year this was just a nasty little cold… but in 2021, until you get a negative test, you’re a potential one-person superspreader event with symptoms like those.

Recalling the ease with which I got my daughter tested earlier this year, I began calling around on Sunday for available testing sites. My first stop was her pediatrician’s office, which I discovered was closed on the weekends because kids in New Hampshire never get sick on Sundays or something. CVS and Walgreen’s offered tests, but to book one (book one?), I had to go through a third-party internet-and-telephone process that used overseas phone banks to answer questions. The main hospital’s test signup process was also run by a third party, and was equally Byzantine to encompass.

After all that, the best I could do was a 4:45 pm appointment in Nashua the following Thursday. Meanwhile, my daughter and I were showing enough symptoms to be worried, but as the day wore on and the kid’s cold medication did its work, her symptoms slowly subsided. By Monday morning she was as bright as a new penny, no symptoms, and the school’s antigen test declared her negative. Away she went.

All’s well that ends well, but this is all far from over. A day is going to come, and probably soon, when I will need to get her tested, and as matters stand now, that is going to involve driving hours across the state days from now to get test results that will take even longer. It is the worst possible setup, and with the Omicron variant on the rise, will make it almost impossible to keep a fourth COVID wave from subsuming yet another winter.

Anyone with an honest ear recalls how this started: Then-President Trump practically burned the entire infrastructure of testing to the ground 21 months ago, because testing caused more cases in his addled orange mind, and more cases was bad politics for him. I remember the moment, weeks into the pandemic, when the screams for “more testing” finally subsided, because they just weren’t coming thanks to Trump. For the most part, they never did.

Joe Biden pounded into office on a solemn promise to do better, and in a variety of key areas he has most assuredly performed on a level commensurate with the challenges before him. The staggering lack of easily available testing, however, remains a glaring national crisis that, from the sound of things, doesn’t seem to have much of a share of the administration’s attention.

Germany, South Korea and the United Kingdom are all running races around us when it comes to testing, almost entirely because they have made these tests incredibly easy to get. When asked on Monday by a reporter why we were lagging behind, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki rolled out a laundry list of Biden policies — mostly making sick people deal with the bureaucracy colossus of the private insurance industry to get tests and treatment — which did not sit well with the assembled.

When the reporter pressed the secretary about that process being too complex — “Why not just make them free … and have them available everywhere?” — Psaki replied with one of the shabbier takes of her tenure: “Should we just send one to every American? Then what happens if you, if every American, has one test? How much does that cost, and then what happens after that?”

Ah, yes, the “How much does it cost?” question, always asked when politicians have the chance to help people, but never invoked when cruise missiles light up the sky somewhere over the horizon. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter costs $1.5 trillion and rising, and it doesn’t work, and few people ask the question.

Should we send one to everyone? YES, and be damned to the cost. If we can fund those Top Gun paperweights, we can bloody well get swabs in the noses of sick people for no better reason than our own enlightened self-interest. Psaki’s answer could have been drafted on the desk of an insurance CEO.

It is amazing to me that we are still wrestling with this dilemma that should never have been a dilemma to begin with. Frontline health workers are no longer wearing garbage bags into ICU rooms as protection like they did at the beginning, and the vaccines have changed the game substantially… but here comes Omicron to change the game again, perhaps dramatically. If we don’t know how many of us are really sick, we cannot begin to solve this crisis, and we get that data through testing.

“It remains incomprehensibly inconvenient for ordinary people to figure out whether they have Covid-19,” reports New Republic writer Natalie Shure. If this dearth of testing is allowed to endure and Omicron blots out the sun for another run of months, Biden will rue that day last summer when he gave us all that happy talk about the “Summer of Freedom” before us. It was a chimera aggravated by glaring snafus like this.

If I know anything at all about voters, it is that they remember being vocally let down by a president — “Read my lips, no new taxes!” followed later by “Hey, new taxes!” — pretty much better than they remember anything else. The Republicans will happily remind them along the way, and another bleak COVID crossing could be followed by a dance with the devil in the pale moonlight of election night, November 2022.

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