What the People Who Test You for Coronavirus Want You to Know

"I’ve refused patients because they’d already been tested a few days earlier, and hadn’t even gotten the result yet."
Justine  Reix
Paris, France
November 12, 2020, 8:30am
COVID-19 Nasal Swab test.
Photos: Getty Images / bluecinema. Getty Images / Radoslav Zilinsky. Collage by VICE. 

This article originally appeared on VICE France.

Lab assistants are among the many healthcare professionals exposed to COVID-19 on a daily basis. Currently, in France, only people who’ve been in contact with the virus or those who show symptoms are told to get tested – but that isn’t stopping people from needlessly taking tests and risking infection at the lab.

Eloise* works in an analysis laboratory in Strasbourg. To meet demand, she’s been working six days a week since the beginning of the pandemic, and recently the region where she lives has been one of the country’s most affected. I spoke to Eloise about her daily life and her point of view on the crisis.

VICE: Hey, Eloise. Why do people get the test for no reason?
Eloise: People always have a reason, it’s just that sometimes it’s not good enough. Sometimes, when the lab is empty, we’ll take people without a referral [in France, those with a doctor referral have priority]. We always ask them why they want to get tested, and most say it’s “just in case”. Honestly, this just prolongs the waiting time for those who really need the results. I know it’s hard when you’re afraid of getting a loved one sick, but if you don’t have any symptoms, be reasonable, don’t come in. Just self-isolate for a few days.

How many tests do you do per day?
Luckily, I work in a lab where PCR tests [nasal swabs] are only done in the morning. We test from 7AM to 1PM, every day except Sundays. I don’t really count the tests, but I’d estimate I do one every five minutes, and there are three of us. It’s a lot.

What’s it like looking up people’s noses all day?
Let’s say it’s a novelty in my field. In the old days, I mostly took people’s blood. I kind of miss it. Nasal swabs are obviously more intimate than poking someone’s arm with a needle. Sometimes you get snot leaking out or sticking to the swab. I’m a professional, so it doesn’t bother me, but it always bothers the person getting tested. Our job is to put them at ease. They’re already so afraid of potential pain that when they also get upset about the snot it’s just a lot of drama.


Photo: Alfonso Fabio Iozzino / Alamy Stock Photo

So does the test actually hurt? 
No, and I don’t understand why people say it does. Of course, there’s always the risk someone will administer it badly, and then it can hurt. But that’s rare. It’s really not hard to do a PCR test correctly.

Why do people make a big deal out of it?
Either they’ve had bad luck or they’re just being dramatic. I mean, obviously it’s not fun. The test consists of a nasopharyngeal swab. In other words, it’s at the junction of the nose and the pharynx, and we’re not used to being touched there. Sometimes people’s eyes water, that’s normal. You might feel discomfort for 20 minutes after the test. But once a patient told me he felt as if he’d been raped. I couldn’t believe he said that, I was ashamed for him.

Do you see the same people over and over again?
Yes, we have regulars. I’m on a first-name basis with some, I know about their personal lives. We have at least ten people we see every week. We try to convince them not to come, we tell them it’s useless to get tested so often, that it just slows the system down. I’ve refused patients before because they’d already been tested a few days earlier and hadn’t even gotten the result yet. Some people get tested in multiple labs because they don’t believe a single result is trustworthy enough.

Are you afraid of catching the virus?
No, not really. I’ve already had it – I think I caught it at work. Although I could get reinfected – we are seeing more cases of that – it’s still rare. Also, now I know what to expect. I’m more annoyed than scared. Almost every day, I have to deal with people who don’t follow the rules during testing. There are people who take their masks off entirely for the test [in France, you’re only supposed pull the mask below your nose], or who cough near me. You’d think they were doing it on purpose. We’re taking risks to help them and to fight the spread of the virus, the least they can do is respect the rules.

Who’s been your worst patient so far?
Probably the guy who asked for my number and invited me to dinner right after I did his nasal swab, because he thought I was cute. He had a lot of nerve. He’d been in contact with somebody infected, so it was pretty much the worst pickup strategy ever. Even in 2020, you can do better.

What’s the most tiring thing about your job right now?
Probably the repetition. Normally, you have enough time to talk to patients, to ask them why they’re there, especially for a blood test. But the pandemic has meant we’ve had to get used to moving fast. For PCR tests, we have to repeat the protocol and ask the patients’ symptoms every time. I feel like a robot by the end of the day.

Any advice for people who are going to get tested soon?
The most important thing is to get tested only if you’ve been in direct contact with a person who tested positive, or if you have symptoms. Also, you have to respect social distancing measures – it seems obvious, but every day I see people chatting in line with less than a metre between them. They’ll even touch each other. Let’s just say it’s counterproductive. Bottom line, just follow the advice of health professionals, and everything will be fine. 

*Name changed.