Your Top Qs About COVID-19 Drive-thru Testing, Answered

Don’t know when/where/how to get tested for the coronavirus? A photojournalist from Charleston, SC, shares her experience with a drive-thru clinic.

by Ayren Jackson-Cannady Senior Editor

With drive-thru COVID-19 testing clinics popping up fast and furiously, many Americans may be left with more questions than answers about the whole testing process—How does it all work? Can I just drive up whenever? And the biggest: Do I have the coronavirus?

Around mid-March, Lauren Petracca, 28, was asking these same questions. The photojournalist at a local newspaper in Charleston, SC, woke up with a little cough and a bunch of anxiety, as it was just when everyone in the U.S. was starting to really take notice of the novel coronavirus that had already hit China (and other countries) hard.

We asked her to walk us through what happened when she decided to pursue testing for COVID-19.

Why did you want to get tested in the first place?

I woke up with a cough and was a little on edge. I didn’t have any known exposure to anyone who tested positive, but I had recently traveled on an airplane to a nearby state for a weekend trip. Also, because of my job, I’m in contact with a lot of people. By that night, I started to feel like I was getting a fever and the chills. The next morning, I took an online coronavirus screening with our local hospital, Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), to see if I would qualify for a test. At that point, my fever was only slight and I didn’t qualify. That night, though, my fever rose to 101°F so when I woke up the next day, I did the screening again. This time I qualified. They called me just over 24 hours later to set up an appointment. After taking the second screening, I still had to wait 48 hours before I was able to go take the actual test because at the time, there were a limited number of tests in our area.

What was the online screening like?

It was basically a series of yes or no questions about my symptoms. Did I have a cough? Did I have chills? Did I have a fever? What was my fever? When did my symptoms start? Did I have any trouble breathing? Have I traveled outside of the United States recently? Have I been in contact with anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19? Did I have any other notes for the doctor? At the hospital I did my screening with, it was all in questionnaire form, but I know that another local hospital in our area does the screening by video chat with a doctor.

Through Car Window at Drive-thru Coronavirus Testing Site.
Lauren Petracca

Okay, now let’s get to the drive-thru test. Were you given any pre-test instructions?

No, not really. Someone explained to me over the phone that once I pulled up I would keep my window up unless I was told to roll it down for certain steps in the testing process.

Was there a long line of cars waiting?

No. I only saw about four or five cars ahead of me, but they had several different stations working on testing patients.

How long was your wait?

The whole process from the time I drove up to the time I drove out was about 20 minutes.

Describe how the screening process went for you?

It was fairly simple, but I was a bit frustrated when I didn't qualify after the first screening. Government officials were saying that tests were available and if you have a fever and cough, you should get tested. It was hard to hear people saying that and then be told I couldn't get one.

Were you nervous leading up to the testing?

A little. I didn’t know too much about what the test entailed. I was pretty confident that what I had was the flu, but because of my job, I wanted to be sure that if I went back to work once my symptoms were gone, I wouldn’t be spreading anything to the people I was trying to help.

Did you have to pay out of pocket for the test or did insurance cover it?

While it is true that the coronavirus test is free, it isn’t widely known that when you go to the testing site they also do a respiratory panel test, which is not free. I was told over the phone when I was called to schedule the screening that this panel test could cost up to $280 [depending on your location], but if I had insurance my bill would likely be around $25.

Did you know what was going to happen, or were you surprised by it all?

I didn’t know what was going to happen. When I pulled up to the nurse who was doing the test on me, I was given a Kleenex and told to roll up my window and blow my nose. After doing that, he had me roll down my window and I went to hand him my Kleenex because I thought maybe he was going to test what I had blown out. However, I quickly realized it wasn’t going to be that easy. He had to insert a swab about three inches into each nostril and spin it around for 10 seconds each.

What did the test feel like? Did it hurt?

It was uncomfortable. I have never had anything stuck that far up my nostrils. I had to try my best to not pull my head away. For the rest of the day, it felt like I could feel where the swabs had been. It almost felt like that sensation in your sinuses where you need to sneeze. I had been given paperwork that said after the test, I could bleed a little, but I never did.

Being tested for COVID-19 at drive-thru testing site.
Steve Remmler

Did it compare to any other test you’ve taken in the past?

I have never had a test like that. Some people told me that it’s similar to a flu test, but I have never gotten a test for the flu before so I’m not sure if that’s accurate or not.

How long did they say it would be before you received the results?

I was told it would be 48 to 72 hours before I would get results. It was 48 hours after my test that I got a phone call and was told I tested positive for Influenza A. I was relieved when I first heard I had the flu, which is something I never thought I'd say. I immediately texted my mom and friends, who were also relieved. I was also excited to maybe get back to having a more semi-normal life.

I asked the nurse on the phone if this meant that once my symptoms had subsided, I could take myself out of quarantine. She said yes. However, minutes later she called back and informed me that their policy of testing for coronavirus only after testing negative for the flu had just changed, and they were still going to send off the coronavirus test. She told me to wait for those results, which would take a day or two, before I leave the house.

Coronavirus Testi Bag at Drive-thru Site.
Lauren Petracca

So, did you have the coronavirus?

The test came back negative! I always felt like I had the flu but wanted to make sure that’s what was causing my symptoms so that if I went back to work, I wouldn’t unknowingly contribute to the spread of the virus.

What are your plans now?

My symptoms have mostly subsided, so I have been able to do more around the house. My boss gave me some work that I have been able to do from home for a few days, and my dog is happy about getting more attention and walks during the day. I have also been taking advantage of my yoga studio’s online classes.

I plan to stay home as much as possible, but will probably head to the grocery store to stock up on things that we are low on after being quarantined for a week. My husband and I plan to take advantage of Charleston’s weather and waterways and get out on the kayaks we recently bought. I also hope to return to work next week and continue my work as a community photojournalist to document this monumental time. I plan to use as many precautions as possible to limit the contact I have with others so that I can keep myself and others around me safe.

Ayren Jackson-Cannady
Meet Our Writer
Ayren Jackson-Cannady

Ayren is a senior editor at HealthCentral. She works across categories, specializing in skin health, and oversees several newsletters. Before joining the team, Ayren covered skin and hair health as a beauty editor for several national publications, including Fitness, Suede/Essence, TimeOut NY, and Lucky, and she was the Washington, D.C. editor of the parenting site, RedTri.com. She has written for The New York Times, Health, Allure, WebMD, Self, Real Simple, and more.