Please, for the love of the sweet baby Jesus, tell me that this is not in fact a thing that anyone outside of freaks and maniacs who really want to be interviewed by a magazine is doing/has done. There aren’t many times when I want the media to make up a trend, but if the choice is between that and entire families sharing a single rapid COVID test swab, make things up all day long, newsfolk!
“It started as a joke, actually,” Elena Korngold told me. But late last month, the 40-something radiologist from Portland, Oregon, and her family decided that their unsanctioned scheme couldn’t hurt. Elena began the proceedings by unwrapping the sterile swab from a BinaxNOW rapid test for SARS-CoV-2, part of the family’s dwindling supply. She swirled the swab around the insides of each of her nostrils. Then she passed it to her husband, a cardiologist named Ethan, who swirled it around the insides of each of his nostrils. Then their two children did the same. It was “like some sort of religious ritual,” Elena said.
The snot-saturated swab went into the test card. The test card showed a negative result. The Korngolds, now bonded by something even thicker than blood, went to their dinner party. Nobody got COVID.
At the dinner party, did they only use one fork?
I understand what they were thinking. Tests are hard to come by sometimes, so you’ve got to stretch your resources as far as you can. But I’m sorry. There’s no dinner party in the damn world I would do that for. Not even sure I’d do it for a funeral, honestly.
And does it even work? Probably not. There is such a thing as pooled testing, but it’s not done like this. Not even close.
In standard pooled testing, people without symptoms might be divided into, say, groups of 10. Mucus from each person is collected (using a fresh swab; I guess I have to specify that now). A lab mixes together a bit of each sample from the group of 10, and then tests the witches’ brew using the PCR method. If a pool is positive, each individual specimen can be retested to figure out who’s carrying the virus.
Pooled PCR testing works because the process was designed with that in mind, Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told me. The samples are each mixed with just the right amount of chemicals to combine into one working test. Squeezing swabs from multiple people into a kit designed to test just one “isn’t really pooled testing,” she said. The rapid tests currently available to Americans don’t come with all the swabs, chemicals, and test tubes that would be necessary to accommodate multiple samples, and jerry-rigging that equipment could lead to contamination or unwanted chemical reactions. Susan Butler-Wu, a clinical microbiologist at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, told me that the inclusion of too many human cells from the insides of too many human noses could also produce false negatives on antigen tests by diluting the virus sample. The latter problem doesn’t apply to PCR tests, for which samples are washed of irrelevant genetic material.
And let’s not forget that everyone is shoving this thing up their noses. None of you may have COVID, but that doesn’t mean nobody has anything, and now chances are you’re all going to get it.
The people in this story are medical professionals. How do they not know better?
The Korngolds considered—and then put aside—the possibility that their testing experiment could speed infection from one person to another. “It seemed like it would be a reasonable thing to try,” Ethan told me. After all, each of them was up to date on their vaccines, and if the pooled test did come back positive, they had enough tests in the house to identify the culprit. They didn’t even have any trouble working out their order of snot transmission. (Ethan: “We’re close enough as a family that there really couldn’t be any other way.” Elena: “Every family probably has an order in their own mind.”)
I’ll bet you all of the money that my family does not. And I will do it confidently, even though some of us are weird as shit.
In the grand scheme of pandemic-induced norm-breaking, the Korngolds said, the shared nose swabbing hardly registered against changes like remote schooling and reusing masks in the hospital.
I’ll give you the mask thing. That’s definitely not normal and arguably not safe. But online school? That’s just college, but for little kids. That stuff’s been around since the 90s. You can ask Carin all about it.
And in the grand scheme of being a family, well, they’ve seen worse. “I would say it is not one of the grossest parts of parenting by a long stretch,” Elena said.
Yeah, babies are gross. But when they crap everywhere or throw up on you, you don’t have to stuff it in your own mouth, so I’m not having any of this comparison.
The Korngolds insisted that they know perfectly well that their DIY pool setup might not be as accurate as testing one person with one kit, but they don’t regret giving it a go. “I think we’re just like other families that are trying to figure out a way through this,” Ethan told me. And if they get desperate, he and Elena said, they’d happily share snot again.
Well hell. I guess they don’t know better.
We’ve spent a lot of time in this household being very cautious about COVID, so I hate to call anyone hysterical. But if ever there was a time when I would do that, I think this might just be it.