COVID Testing and Contact Tracing in RI, the UK, and NYC: a Personal Anecdote/Saga

Lambert here: Long-time alert reader AM threw the following over the transom. She describes the experiences she and her husband had with rapid testing, a false positive, a negative test, and tracking futility and box checking in Rhode Island, the UK, and New York City. Needless to say, it looks to me like our pandemic infrastructure has a ways to go. Readers, have you had similar experiences that you would like to share?

Our story starts in Providence, Rhode Island…

* * *

Here is the sequence of events:

We decide to go ahead with a trip to Scotland in the first two weeks of October (postponed from May). We are going to be in the countryside in a vacation rental property with no one else and plan to play some golf and do other socially distant activities. No plans to meet anyone there, so fairly responsible.

Husband decides that it would be even more responsible to get tested for COVID-19 so we can prove we are negative. I am not so sure it’s a good idea since it won’t exempt us from the UK quarantine requirement but I go along, against my instincts. We go to a rapid testing place with a URI contract in Central Falls, RI two days before we are supposed to fly out. The test is done by swirling a swab around the inside of both nostrils. It is not the nasopharyngeal type of test. Hubby’s test results are negative, mine are positive. It makes no sense, so we scramble around to get a second test done. Find a private clinic in Providence. Walk in, see a doctor after filling out insurance stuff and we both get the nasopharyngeal type of test in both sides of our nasal cavities. The results should be available in around 24 hours, we are told.

Sure enough, hubby gets his the next morning, now the day before we are flying to Scotland. Negative again for him. My results still hadn’t shown up by late morning, but there they were, just as we were starting the drive to NYC for our flight – NEGATIVE! I realize that the tests aren’t 100% accurate but I will take the nasopharyngeal over the inside the nostrils swab any day. Plus, how could hubby be negative if I am positive? I am 100% sure that my positive results were wrong.

Meanwhile, I already had been contacted by the RI health department’s COVID-19 tracking crew. I missed the call but left a message on their voicemail. I even tried again to reach them a couple of times during the day but always got voicemail. I never received another call from them during the 48 hours between the false positive test and our flight to Scotland Friday night.

10 days later, they finally texted me but by then I was in Scotland. They had no record of the negative test results. Only the positive, which was from 10 days earlier. They asked a lot of questions about my ethnicity, sexual orientation, and where I worked, but very little about my contacts. I told them that I had tested negative as well, which seemed to confuse them. That was the last time I heard from RI.

We provided the UK government with our planned quarantine location in Scotland and gave them contact information. This was an online form that we completed the night before our flight. When we got to Heathrow airport, it seemed like we were the only ones who had done this, even though it was supposedly a requirement. The line barely moved at border control because the immigration agents were helping everyone fill out the form!

We did get an email two days after our arrival from the Scottish health authorities warning us that we might be contacted as part of a random sampling, and that we might be fined if we didn’t respond to a phone call or email, but needless to say we never heard anything. We had a wonderful vacation and kept to ourselves, but we did play golf, visit some castles and ate out several times. I don’t think we were at risk or put anyone at risk. The whole quarantine process is just theater. Lots of information collected for no really effective reason.

Upon our return to NYC on a Saturday night, we had to fill out another form telling NY where we had been and where we would be staying for our two weeks of quarantine. After we got our luggage at JFK and were heading to the exit, we encountered about half a dozen National Guard officers who were handing out the paper forms and pens for completing them. There weren’t a lot of people on the plane, but everyone was jammed together in a relatively small space filling out the forms. Definitely not 6 feet of separation. No one could leave without completing one. They were not one per household either – we each had to fill out our own. I couldn’t believe that the guards were actually giving people pens and that the passengers were sharing them with each other. If we do get the COVID-19 from our trip it will be from the form filling out exercise! Thanks Andy! Moreover, I could have scribbled down anything or made a “mistake” in my phone number or email address and none of the National Guard guys collecting the forms would have known. NY didn’t care if we took a taxi home though. More theatre.

When we got to our NYC apartment there was a voicemail message for me from the NYC COVID-19 tracking people wanting to offer me resources because of my positive test from two weeks earlier. Said that they got my name from a database. They left a voicemail saying they would call again the next day. Maybe they did, but they didn’t leave a second message.
So we drove back to RI on Sunday. Nothing from NYC on Monday but on Tuesday I got a call from the NYC COVID-19 trackers They said they were calling because I had a positive test result from 20 days before. I told them that I had also tested negative on the same day. No record of that, and they also thought my false positive test was done in MA, not RI. The guy on the phone seemed to appreciate that a lot of time had gone by, but he still asked me whether I had any of a long list of symptoms. He asked questions about my ethnicity, my contacts, whether I was being abused, whether I had any medical conditions or disabilities, as well as my gender and sexual orientation!! He offered phone numbers for counseling and assistance with getting food. He said that they would be sending a care package with gloves and hand sanitizer. He told me that I should wash my clothes separately from my hubby’s. They went through all this even though it had been 20 days since my false positive results and even though I told him that I had no symptoms. A box checking exercise, clearly. I could tell he was reading from a script.

They also called my husband and asked him about symptoms. But not about our trip to Scotland. I assume that we will have to go through this all over again when they finally figure out that we recently traveled to a country that is probably doing better than the US in terms of new cases.

All I can say is that quarantine requirements and contact tracing are pointless and the contact tracking efforts are a huge waste of time and money. If I really had had the COVID-19, I would have spread it all over before they got in touch with me. By then it would be too late. The UK and the US are not China. I shudder to think what would have happened to me if I lived there! I’ll take the US any day, but state governments really need to stop pretending. What a joke.

Well, this has been therapeutic!

* * *

I do think, and I’m not being cynical here, that the People’s Republic of New York sending a COVID care package is a good thing. Nevertheless.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

24 comments

  1. epynonymous

    Saw a shocking sign on the highway in Ma yesterday.

    The big orange official ones, sign said -NEED HELP PAYING RENT- -CALL 211…-

    Mid-sized city here in Mass and the schools closed friday, excepting for children with special needs.

    The special needs waiver was a last minute addition and the teachers union isn’t happy.

    I don’t know how many kids tested positive here, but the way it sounded it was as if just one kid finally tested positive and then and only then they shut down the school at the admin level. Of course a kid was going to test positive eventually? Why was it even open for a month, if you were just gonna close it at the first sign? Glad they did what they did, but wish they’d had the sense to do more.

    The kid tested negative and got his results in 2 days. But I won’t lie here, I’ve kept isolated except for breakfast in the morning (kids gotta learn, ya know) so first thing I had to do the next day was go get milk once everyone calmed down. I’d done temperature checks and it looks like the kid just had a regular bug like strep throat etc. Also, the bowling alley in town was sure packed last night… I sure hope it was league night…

    Oh, and parents are getting EBT cards (food stamps) for the money they schools would usually spend on lunches.

    Final speculation, judging from the new social patterns I’m seeing down town, I fully expect that there will be speak-easy equivalent type live music events and *more* if we make a full year of lockdown.

    Reply
    1. Arizona Slim

      I’m already seeing speakeasy-type student parties in the neighborhoods near the University of Arizona. The kids aren’t outdoors. Instead, they’re inside.

      What gives these events away is the booming music that emanates from briefly opened doors.

      Reply
      1. bob

        The local uni here is quite adept at PR. They have a school, Newhouse school of PR, as part of the Uni. Newhouse also owns the local paper. Odd, that…

        Anyway, all of the news about covid and the Uni are all in the past tense (“phew! we caught that!)

        https://www.syracuse.com/coronavirus/2020/10/syracuse-university-contains-coronavirus-outbreak-lifts-student-restrictions.html

        “SU had 87 active cases today, down from 99 Wednesday, the highest number since the pandemic began. The majority of those cases are related to the off-campus party on Walnut Avenue.”

        I’m having lots of trouble matching up the numbers released by the university with the numbers being released by the county. That’s probably just me.

        Anyway, they are also doing this, which sounds really, really serious-

        “Restrictions, however, will remain in effect related to off-campus housing and gatherings, where nearly 80 percent of all cases have originated this semester. Those restrictions include:

        Social gatherings off campus may not exceed five individuals who do not live together.
        Students who lease or occupy off-campus housing and host gatherings that exceed the limit could face disciplinary action.”

        Reply
        1. upstater

          Beer pong is alive and well outdoors on warm afternoons on Euclid and other neighborhoods east of the Syracuse campus. I assume the frat boys are playing pong indoors.

          Reply
      2. JBird4049

        Gee, I think that the speakeasies of both Prohibition and the Quarantine might have similar death rates?!

        Much of the alcohol served in the Speakeasies were of questionable taste and safety. The modern cocktail was an invention of Prohibition. Now, let’s add that between the incompetent bathtub brewers, psychopathic cheapskates, and the federal government regularly spiking the industrial alcohol sold with denatured alcohol the chances of going blind or dying during some visit was very real. There would groups of deaths or injuries when a bad batch was sold. Much like when some modern drug dealer sells improperly cut heroin.

        Maybe like then, the random chance of dying or having some of one’s organs failing for a bit just added a taste of excitement to today’s party goers.

        Reply
      3. anon in so cal

        Here in our corner of Los Angeles—where we are still at Tier 1 with widespread community transmission—-several of our neighbors regularly have indoor and outdoor parties. One is an actual Airbnb “party house” that is now rented out only about once a week. Strangers from who knows where show up Friday through Sunday and proceed to host a large group. They’re about 100 feet away–close enough to be able to hear the din through closed windows. These are illegal, according to code. So, maybe they qualify as “speakeasies”? Other neighbors hold outdoor parties. Based on the noise level and the clarity of the audio, it’s doubtful they’re masked (one of these parties involved loud, live choral singing….).

        Since I closely follow Dr. Milton, we only go outside fully masked, even in the yard.

        “The virus “is traveling through the air and there is no bright line. You’re not safe beyond 6 feet. You can’t take your mask off at 6 feet,” said Dr. Donald Milton of the University of Maryland School of Public Health.”

        https://ktla.com/news/coronavirus/cdc-releases-updated-covid-19-guidance-says-virus-can-spread-more-than-6-feet-through-air/

        Reply
    2. Joe Well

      I am also in Mass. so I was very interested in your comments.

      Did you know that there was no testing for school students and staff in Mass? So if anyone tested positive, they did so on their own or because of another exposure or because they had symptoms. Given that reality, I am not sure how they can really assess the risk of in-person public school.

      As for speak-easy events, indoor dining carries the same risk, if not more. If you can have an indoor performance where everyone wears a mask and groups/individuals sit 6 feet apart, the only risk would be that people break the rules, right?

      I really am furious about the state allowing in-person dining since it is both theoretically and practically impossible to do much in terms of mitigation and it has been a demonstrated risk in many parts of the world.

      Reply
      1. Keith

        That’s the thing with indoor dining, at a restaurant it is good, but heaven forbid you meet with family at your own residence. It is for this nonsense that people (like me) are picking and choosing what rules to follow. In the end, it is just about common sense.

        On an aside, from the comments section at the WaPo, people are pretty convinced that indoor dining is safe whereas at home with family, a la Thanksgiving, is a bad idea.

        Reply
        1. Lambert Strether Post author

          > at home with family, a la Thanksgiving

          Certainly if the family mingled with airport travellers (though, to be fair, I can’t think of a superspreading event in an airport).

          Reply
      2. epynonymous

        I go out to eat all the time, to be honest. If the place is packed then I’m out, but I know I’m still exposed (and vice versa) to the kitchen staff and servers.

        The thing about music is that singing and dancing mean your going to shed alot more virus than the baseline (assuming we’ve established a baseline, regardless there is one IRL)

        I’m usually a karaoke nut. I heard somewhere that the only karaoke left in the country right now is in florida and utah, as of two or so weeks back.

        My second thing I’m noticing is that liquor store clerks have finally given up on wearing a mask. They plasti-screen off their workstations and just don’t wear masks all day. They know their customers, and we aren’t going to *not* buy alcohol.

        Speak easy indeed. ;)

        Reply
  2. Adam1

    “…how could hubby be negative if I am positive?”

    Covid is not the flu. People with the flu are basically equally as likely to spread it. With covid-19, only a minority of people actually spread the disease. It is not out of the realm of possibility that one spouse has it and the other does not.

    Additionally, a positive test means you have antigen particles in your system. It does NOT mean you have not been infected – past tense. Some people’s immune systems clear the disease quite quickly. Both spouses could have been infected and one is clear very early on and later tests negative while the other tests positive as their body was slower to reach immunity and clear the virus and its antigen particles.

    Also note, that testing positive only means you have antigen particles in your body, not that you are actively contagious as you could be on the immune side of an infection and just have residuals that have yet to be cleared by the body.

    Reply
  3. Joe Well

    My biggest concern with air travel right now is precisely the crowding in the airports, and on planes where they do not put empty seats between passengers. They’ve made the transition from security theater to covid theater.

    This post is validating my concerns.

    I used to visit at least one country a year, but in 2020 I will continue seeing New England in depth, by car, and I won’t be rethinking that decision until the winter gets really, really dire.

    Reply
    1. JBird4049

      This theater is being used as either a distraction from other issues or to make people falsely believe that those in charge care about the proles. Add that the theater also habituates people into mindless obedience to orders and to questioning because “safety.”

      Reply
      1. epynonymous

        was gonna save this for a bigger post later on the post sep 11 comment on security theater, but remember when we had color coded warnings before?

        The FBI term d’ art was ‘resiliency’ two years back…

        Reply
        1. JBird4049

          Yeah, they dropped the color coded “warnings” when it was too obvious that the warnings were being issued for political gain and not as danger warnings. People just blew them off and IIRC, the comedians were making far too many jokes about it. Paraphrasing Robin Williams: we don’t when, we don’t where, and we don’t how, but something very baaaad is going to happen to us!

          Reply
    2. Michael Fiorillo

      My daughter recently returned home to NYC on a flight from Florida (crazy, I know), and the plane was 2/3rds occupied by Hasidim, none of whom wore masks after takeoff. The crew apparently tried everything they could, but it was hopeless… total contempt for the welfare of others by these religious fanatics, who are endlessly catered to by craven electeds here.

      Personally, I ain’t goin’ no place I can’t drive to in my own car.

      Reply
      1. upstater

        The big 3 airlines have banned mask refusnik people for the duration of the pandemic. I recall reading some weeks back hundreds have been banned. I wonder if any Hasidim got banned from that flight?

        Reply
  4. rtah100

    I don’t want to misread the situation but the way the account reads, the author travelled to the UK for two weeks and did not quarantine. The quarantine is two weeks at one property: No visitors, no trips out, no golf.

    Have I misunderstood? I hope so because it otherwise the post would be an even bigger example of the problems than it thinks it is!

    Reply
  5. Mikel

    “If I really had had the COVID-19, I would have spread it all over before they got in touch with me…:

    Something I hadn’t considered: peoole running around looking for a negative test and spreading.

    But part of the difficulty could be because there are still lockdowns going on and this system doesn’t encourage travelling. And still no gaurantee vaccination proof is going to make it any easier.

    And how easy should it be to travel in the midst of a pandemic?

    Unless you can fly private….

    Reply
  6. Lou Anton

    So the last 2 books I’ve read are Phishing for Fools and Graeber’s Bulls**t Jobs. The “box checking” is straight out of Graber’s book, and contract tracing is surely a hotbed of bezzles.

    Reply
  7. Icecube12

    I flew into Massachusetts from Europe en route to Chicago in the middle of September. I would have never chosen to fly at this time, but my father died and so I came back. Mass requires people coming in to fill out a travel form online and also to either produce a negative test or quarantine for 2 weeks (or however long one is staying in the state; I only stayed a night so said in the form I would quarantine for that time). We also had to fill out a US Homeland Security form on the plane coming into Logan for travelers coming from China, Brazil, and Schengen countries (China was still on the list; India, to be the best of my recollection, was not).

    The only time these regulations were ever really mentioned was at the airport in Iceland, when the lady at the check-in desk asked me for the address where I would be staying in Boston and told me to make sure to fill out the Mass travel form. When I arrived at Boston Logan, no one asked for or made reference to the Mass travel form, asked where I would quarantine, asked for the form I had filled out on the plane, or took my temperature. The border agent only asked me one question: “no symptoms?” And that was it. Oh, I also got a pamphlet telling me to watch for symptoms. I checked into a hotel at the airport for the night before my connecting flight the next morning, and no one at the hotel mentioned anything about quarantine, even though I had clearly flown into Boston that day. It was all honor system. I read somewhere that I would get a text message each day reminding me to quarantine, but I think I left too early the next morning for that.

    I am wondering if it might be more hullaballoo when I fly back from Chicago to Boston en route to Europe next week. Maybe the feds are more lax and the state more strict? But if that is the case, I am worried it will be more like what was reported in this post about flying into NYC–dangerous pandemic theater.

    Reply
  8. Noone from Nowheresville

    Contact tracing theater aside, would international leisure travel during a pandemic count as an example of “petulant children?” Perhaps more chocolate purchased via the internet is called for.

    Yeah, this article and Sunday’s op left me with a sour taste. Lots of assumptions that need to be re-examined as well as labels.

    Reply
  9. Catlady

    As someone who has an apartment in NYC, a house in RI, a mother in law in MA and a brother in law in CT, I have been under pretty much continuous travel and quarantine orders from one of these states or another since March. First RI quarantined people from NY, then NY quarantined people from RI. MA quarantined people from RI as has CT. What does quarantine even mean? Has any state sent the police to our door or delivered food to us? Did the UK government show up at the quarantine address we gave them with two weeks of food for us? Of course not. Governments just throw the term around without any thought. So I have come up with my own definition of “quarantine” – I will avoid close contact as defined by the CDC (spending more than 15 minutes less than 6 feet away from someone) with anyone other than my spouse and cats. Nothing else is remotely feasible. Yes, I guess I am petulant but I am sick of being told that I have to quarantine when it’s a meaningless term.

    Reply

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