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Phlebotomist Crystal Bovan, with Simple Laboratories, collects a nasopharyngeal swab sample from Harwood Heights Mayor Arlene Jezierny to test for the coronavirus at the lab’s drive-thru testing site in the parking lot of St. Rosalie Catholic Parish in Harwood Heights, Friday, May 1, 2020.

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Testers want tests, but let’s test the testers

Testing helps epidemiologists understand the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. But what will it do for the rest of us?

Phlebotomist Crystal Bovan, with Simple Laboratories, collects a nasopharyngeal swab sample from Harwood Heights Mayor Arlene Jezierny to test for the coronavirus at the lab’s drive-thru testing site in the parking lot of St. Rosalie Catholic Parish in Harwood Heights, Friday, May 1, 2020.
| Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Testing. What’s that all about? I understand they scrape inside your nose with a giant swab, then send the tip off to a lab to determine whether you’ve been infected by COVID-19.

But toward what end?

If you’re really sick, doctors need to know if it’s coronavirus to guide treatment. No confusion there. But what’s the goal of testing the general population? To track the pandemic’s spread? Important, but that isn’t why people are jamming National Guard drive-thru locations. Fear? Mere curiosity?

The general idea, as best I understand it, is that you may have been infected but had no symptoms — many do not — and once you learn you were already infected but are OK now, then you can breathe a big sigh of relief and go about your business, packing into bars, jamming into church pews, secure in the knowledge you can’t get sick because you already have been.

You’d think that, desperate to get the economy back, both the dithering federal government and people protesting the lockdown would unite in one voice to demand those tests, now.

But they’re not. The federal government hems and haws like Hamlet, then shrugs and tells the states to figure it out — all while Fox News types cram statehouse steps to decry any organized attempt to save their lives as fascism.

Even municipalities are trying to get people tested, as are businesses like Simple Laboratories of Harwood Heights, a relatively new (founded 2014), relatively small (200 employees) diagnostic lab reaching over the paralyzed health care system, directly to the public, sorting out the general confusion as it goes.

“We’re in a world of questions right now,” said Narni Yoder, co-founder and chief sales officer of Simple Laboratories, which began drive-thru testing last week. “It’s not black and white.”

No kidding. Not long ago, Simple Labs was busy doing basic “tried and true” tests — scanning blood samples for venereal disease and hepatitis, diabetes and cancer. And then this plague came, and it began testing for that.

Diagnostic labs setting up white tents in church parking lots is a hint the medical system isn’t working.

“We couldn’t wait any longer,” said Yoder. “We tried to go through the normal channels of our clinics, doctors we work with independently. The majority are closed to patients. Everybody is funneled to emergency rooms. But those turn patients away and tell them to go to doctors. Our normal ways weren’t going to work; we had to find our own options. Three weeks ago, we realized: We can just do it. We need to figure it out.”

A lot of people need to do that. Yoder said her facility could process up to 4,000 tests a day but is doing only about 100.

“Our limitation is collection,” said Yoder, adding they’d like to work with groups, such as nursing homes.

No doubt. And I want to sell more papers. But why are tests important?

“People should know their status,” Yoder said. “People should be able to take care of themselves. If you don’t know, it causes more worry. When you know, you might have a path.”

That seemed awfully general. Most people, I imagine, have not been exposed to COVID-19, so testing does nothing besides put $100 into the pockets of places like Simple Laboratories while the tested person ends up in the exact same position: at home, wiping down cans of soup from Sunset Foods.

Right?

“A couple of ways to think about it,” she said. “One, without testing, we can’t move forward. How do we move everybody forward? We’ve been focusing on first responders. What about the rest of the community? What about everyone else? How do we move everything forward? ... That testing is critical.”

A blood sample drawn during drive-thru testing at St. Rosalie Catholic Church in Harwood Heights.
A blood sample drawn during drive-thru testing at St. Rosalie Catholic Church in Harwood Heights.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

“It’s an important step forward,” said Arlene Jezierny, the mayor of Harwood Heights.

I’m all for moving forward. Yoder wouldn’t reveal what percentage of people they’ve tested had been exposed — trade secret — but I persisted. Most haven’t, right? Right?

“The majority of people were not exposed,” she allowed.

It’s all about moving forward.

“The faster we can test more folks, the more information we can contribute to the community and we’ll be able to bring everybody back to some sense of normalcy,” Yoder said.

What’s that line from the end of “The Sun Also Rises”? Oh yes. “Pretty to think so.”

Phlebotomist Crystal Bovan, with Simple Laboratories, draws blood for coronavirus antibody testing for a man at the lab’s drive-thru testing site in the parking lot of St. Rosalie Catholic Parish in Harwood Heights, Friday, May 1, 2020.
Phlebotomist Crystal Bovan, with Simple Laboratories, draws blood for coronavirus antibody testing for a man at the lab’s drive-thru testing site in the parking lot of St. Rosalie Catholic Parish in Harwood Heights, Friday, May 1, 2020.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

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