Attracted by the prospect of helping in the fight against COVID-19 — and the offer of a $50 Amazon card to sweeten the deal — I agreed to be part of a recent trial for a new reusable, home-testing device to detect the virus.
I was contacted about the study via email from Aptitude Medical Systems, the Goleta company that has been administering COVID-19 tests to Santa Barbara City College students and faculty.
Aptitude got my name because, as an SBCC adult-ed student, I’ve been getting tested regularly at sites set up at either the Schott or Wake extended-learning centers before going to my Wednesday morning ceramics class.
During the height of the pandemic, students were required to get tested within a few days of attending an in-person class, but now the tests are more of a suggestion, and a courtesy to your fellow students. Vaccinations and masks have remained mandatory.
I have continued to get the screenings — which are still available at the two adult-ed centers, as well as on the main SBCC campus — because they are an easy means to a free and convenient COVID-19 test if I’m concerned about a possible exposure, or just to be on the safe side.
So, when the email from Aptitude appeared in my inbox, I signed up for the trial without much hesitation. The short instructions for participants indicated:
1. It would be a two-hour appointment (which it wasn’t — more like a scant 90 minutes, even with a couple of blunders on my part), so I might want to bring a book or phone to keep me busy during down time between sample collections.
2. I shouldn’t eat, drink, smoke or use oral-hygiene products 30 minutes ahead of my test.
3. I shouldn’t do any other home COVID-19 tests within eight hours of the appointment.
My session was set for 11:30 a.m. on a Monday, and I arrived on time at the test site, the Goleta Valley Community Center. I pulled into a parking spot in the circular driveway outside the historic building on Hollister Avenue in Old Town.
From an aesthetic point of view, the drab community center, which was built back in 1927 as the Goleta Union School, has certainly seen better days. But, as a COVID-19 testing site for many months, it has played a significant role in helping to save the lives of local residents.
I walked down the hallway to Room 3, where I was escorted in by a young lab technician wearing a baby-blue paper surgical gown and a white mask that looked pretty much like the KN95 that covered my own nose and mouth.
She handed me a piece of white paper tape with a number on it to stick on my shirt, and motioned for me to sit across from her at a small office desk.
The procedure involved four sample collections: two that I would take and test on my own, presumably to see if the test kits are user-friendly enough for even a lay person like me to figure out, and two collected by a health-care professional for further scientific study.
After watching a short video tutorial and being given a step-by-step instruction pamphlet, I started with the self-administered nasal swab and saliva exam kits.
The process is similar to the at-home antigen tests we’ve all be doing for months now: draw the sample, shove it into a collector, shake it up … you know the drill.
Except, the new Aptitude test includes a small black reusable reader box into which you insert a sensor that holds your collection sample and gives the results in 30 minutes.
A solid green line means negative — COVID-19 not detected; solid red indicates positive for COVID-19; and solid purple means the test is invalid — back to the drawing board with a new test.
I guess I’d give myself a B for my testing skills. On the nasal test I forgot to remove the black plastic cover from the base of the collector, so it wouldn’t adhere to the sensor. Duh! And on the saliva test it took me several tries before I got the sensor pressed firmly enough into the reader to avoid an error message.
Third time, or maybe it was the fourth, was the charm.
Both tests showed COVID-19 not detected. Whew!
The most trying part of the whole experience was producing enough saliva to fill the test tube that would be used as a comparison specimen.
Hoping it might make me salivate, the friendly health-care professional who was administering the test kept asking me to think of my favorite food (an apple pancake, bubbling over with hot cinnamon and sugar … Yum-O!).
When that didn’t work, she brought out a lemon-scented candle, which is apparently a spit stimulator. Who knew?
It also didn’t help that I dropped the test tube at one point and had to start over. In a nod to the professionalism of the Aptitude lab technicians, no one flinched (at least not that I noticed) when an audible scream, and possibly an expletive, escaped my lips as the saliva receptical slipped from my hand and landed on the carpet. Oops!
Eventually, I successfully completed all the required testing and, as promised, was awarded a $50 Amazon gift voucher, which I quickly used to buy more KN95 masks.
I headed home feeling pretty pleased with myself, especially after reading back over some of the information Aptitude had included in the explanatory material it gives to test participants:
“By participating in this study, you’re not only helping to fight the ongoing pandemic, but you’re also helping us to increase testing access and affordability for all,” it states. “Additionally, this product will be expanded to include other targets such as flu, strep, STDs, etc. in the future so that people have access to convenient and accurate health care in the privacy of their own home.
“This study is a major step toward realizing this goal and we greatly appreciate your help.”
— Marcia Heller is a Noozhawk copy editor. Contact her at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are her own.