Need a COVID-19 test? Sherwood and Xavier are here to help
They came to the McDonald’s parking lot in Apex, N.C., on the Monday before Thanksgiving: sniffly kids and holiday travelers and employees, from all walks of life but seeking the same thing: reassurance in the form of a COVID test.
Twenty months into the pandemic, testing has become a mainstay of our lives. North Carolina sites have administered more than 20 million COVID-19 tests, including more than 260,000 the week of Nov. 15, according to state data. That doesn’t count rapid tests. And places around the country are reporting a surge as many families opt to require a negative test as an admission to Turkey Day.
For every one of those tests, there’s a person swathed in P.P.E. tickling your brain or ripping open the swab wrapper or at least handing you the Ziploc. On that wet, raw Monday, there were two: Xavier Young of Garner, 28, and Sherwood Jackson of Smithfield, 68, smiling beneath their masks and shields.
Jackson was “Monday marvelous!” he declared to a patient.
This is the busiest testing site that United Providers of Health runs for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, co-founder Jerome Brown said. They’re in seven counties at the moment, partnering with local businesses and organizations, offering both rapid and the more sensitive PCR tests, paying workers $15 to $20 an hour. No fee, no appointment, no significant wait. Some people come back again and again.
“Yes! We are open on Black Friday,” Brown said on his phone under the white testing tent.
Jackson joined UPOH in April 2021, Young earlier this month. “He’s the Kobe and I’m the rookie,” Young said.
Their work is close to nonstop. When the Apex site opens at 10, there’s usually a few people waiting, Young said. As of 10:15, they were scurrying out to cars with registration sheets and reapplying hand sanitizer over their gloves.
“Have you been here before?” Jackson asked Henry Patten, home from school. Henry had not. “Aww, you’re going to be all right. It’s a nice easy test, gonna tickle your nose.”
Henry had started feeling congested Sunday night, mom Stephanie Patten said. They also are spending Thanksgiving with family and want to test beforehand.
Jackson busted out the swab. “Here we go around in circles, uh huh, uh huh,” he sang to the tune of a ‘70s Billy Preston funk song, “trying to get Henry to smile.” Henry held on to his grimace as long as possible. At last, not being made of stone, he cracked and grinned. Jackson beamed back.
Belying their ease, neither man is a career health professional. A great-grandfather, Jackson was retired when he took the UPOH job. His only medical experience was “years ago when I worked in a prison in the State of Washington.” Young had held no health care jobs at all, he said, unless you count volunteering to help people fill out medical paperwork and visiting with lonely seniors in nursing homes. His father worked at UPOH and kept talking about it. Moreover, he’s known Brown for years: They go to the same church and Brown coached his basketball team.
With all the patients, the men started the rapid test first. “Still loading! Buffering,” Young told one young man.
“Your rapid test might take a couple more minutes than usual because it’s windy and cold,” Jackson explained to a patient.
It was indeed. The wind blew the tent wall into the folding table, people’s registration forms came in damp and the tent periodically spat up a load of water. Kids dressed for a sick day in pj’s and flip flops came up to the table huddling against their parents in coats and, in one case, a Baby Yoda fleece cape. “Where’s your jacket, young lady?” Brown said sternly to a 17-year-old in athleisure.
Even on sunny days, the sun doesn’t hit that part of the parking lot. What’s more, a manhole 10 feet from the tent belches up flatulent effluent from the neighboring car wash. Young spent two days thinking that Jackson had eaten something rough, but politely not saying anything, until Jackson clued him in.
“I called my dad – I was like, why didn’t you tell me!” Young said.
Neither minded the outdoor conditions, they said. Jackson bundled up in a Pittsburgh Steelers stocking cap—he’s from Youngstown, Ohio—and over the summer, he bought a neck fan. Young forgot his hat at home, and even though he professed stoicism, he was starting to talk about plugging in the space heater.
But they had no time for that. The job called. Give out the form. Dot reagent on the instant test card. Tear off the swab wrapper and tell the patient: 10 times per nostril, not too deep. Insert the swab into the rapid test card, looking like a weird lollipop. A second swab for the PCR test, which goes into a tube. Break off the swab handle and toss it. Write the patient’s name on the tests, putting on your bifocals if you’re Jackson. Tell the patient the rapid test results. Package both tests for processing. Wipe condensation off the inside of your face shield. Again and again.
It is, undeniably, repetitious. Yet the men never get bored. “I love people,” Jackson said. “I love to see them smile and their eyes light up when you tell them, ‘Yeah, your rapid test is negative.’”
Even when the results come up positive, it’s good to be able to help, Young said. He tells those people, “First, breathe – in your mask.” Then he gives them information and a form to fill out the dates they can safely re-enter society.
There’s no end in sight. Already the week of Nov. 15, UPOH saw about a 20 percent increase in patients, said co-founder Carolyn Mayo: “People are starting to entertain.” The company is also increasing outreach, holding “take a test, get a turkey” events in Ahoskie and Bethel Tuesday.
By noon, Jackson and Young had helped about 50 patients, all testing negative. “Thanksgiving, here we come!” one woman said.
As this reporter walked to her car, Young called out: “If you ever need a test, we’re here!”
Danielle Dreilinger is a North Carolina storytelling reporter and author of the book The Secret History of Home Economics. She reuses her COVID-19 test Ziplocs. Contact her at 919-236-3141 or email@example.com.