A winter 2020 question: Canadian cold or COVID?

OPINION: If I’d gotten a cough and runny nose, I might have had some tea and soup and rested up. But it was my daughter — so we booked a test
By Matt Gurney - Published on Dec 10, 2020
We were told that my daughter might have to wait three days for her COVID-19 test results. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

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I wrote my first article about COVID-19 almost a year ago, back when we still thought of it as the Wuhan virus. Since then, I’ve probably written about it more than I’ve written about anything else in my career. It has been the single overwhelming topic of discussion at every (distanced!) social event, the defining element in all our personal lives, and, by far, the biggest news story of the last year — probably of the last several generations. We will all remember the COVID-19 pandemic until our dying days.

But it wasn’t until this week that I actually got to see it from the inside.

My story is actually quite banal. On Monday, after school, my young daughter’s nose began to run. Just a little bit, at first, but rapidly more and more. By Tuesday morning, her voice had dropped an octave or two, and she had a wet cough in her chest. There was obviously no way we would send her to school like this, and thanks to Toronto‘s new COVID-19 policies for schools, her younger brother was out of action as well. We had the choice of keeping them both home to isolate for 10 days or getting her a test.

My daughter, you will not be surprised to learn, strongly preferred Door #1. But that was obviously not tenable. It seemed faintly ridiculous to worry about it — nothing more than a fairly run-of-the-mill, December-in-Canada cold. It was the sort of thing where, if I myself had had it, I would have had an extra cup or two of tea, made some soup, and kept right on going. But given the circumstances of the times we live in, not to mention the school rules, we had to take it more seriously. So we booked a test.

I’ve written about testing many times over the last few months and had obviously heard anecdotal reports of problems, but I have to say that our own experience was very smooth. I don’t know whether this represents a lucky break on my part or improvements in the system, but I was grateful for it all the same. We were able to book an appointment at one hospital, although not for 36 hours. We were also told to call some of the other local hospitals, as they might’ve had cancellations.

We did — and got lucky. Women’s College Hospital, in downtown Toronto, told us it could take us almost immediately. When we arrived, we lined up outside, in the cold, which probably wasn’t helping anyone's sniffles, for about 40 minutes. Once we were allowed into the hospital, after a very quick screening process by a nurse in full PPE, we waited an additional five minutes before being taken to an exam room. A nurse swabbed my daughter's nose (my daughter did not particularly enjoy that). After 45 minutes of waiting, our time in the exam room was probably less than 90 seconds. And then we were out the door.

Overall, especially considering the serious caseload for COVID-19 in Toronto, I had no complaints. A 45-minute wait for an urgent test in the Canadian health-care system is damn-near miraculous. The question was going to be how long it would take to get results.

My daughter will not be able to return to school until her symptoms improve, but my son could return as soon as his sister had a negative result, assuming he had developed no symptoms himself. When we had booked the appointment, we had been told it could be as fast as 24 hours. The nurse at the hospital said that that would be a best-case scenario, and three days was more likely, given the high testing volumes.

That was Tuesday afternoon, at about 2:40.

On Wednesday morning, just before eight o’clock, I got an email saying that the test results were available. We had set up the online patient profile for my daughter the day before, and accessing it was a smooth, user-friendly process. The result: negative for COVID-19. It was exactly what it looked like — a runny nose and a bit of a cough in a Canadian winter.

My son will return to school on Thursday, much to his disappointment: he has a spelling test he was hoping to miss. My daughter will be able to return 24 hours after her symptoms clear. She’s improving fast, although she could still miss the week.

The overall experience was smooth. There were only two wrinkles: I understand why the hospital wants to keep the lineups of people who are possibly carrying a deadly and highly contagious virus outside the building, but it was a bit chilly — and it’s going to get much, much colder. Standing outside for 40 minutes when it’s about 0 is a drag. Doing it when it’s a gusty -30 might cause more problems than it solves.

And communication with the hospital staff was difficult through their PPE. Communicating was a challenge through our masks and their face shields.

But still. Overall, it was fine, and there was a happy outcome. I don’t dare suggest that our experience was reflective of the broader system. Perhaps we simply got lucky. If so, I’ll take it — and wish you all an equally lucky trip, should one become necessary. Though I hope it won’t!

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