The realization came as I stuffed a box of disposable masks and bottles of hand sanitizer into an overnight bag — I would need to get tested for COVID-19.
So far, I had avoided the dreaded swab test. But now I was on my way to Tulsa to cover President Donald Trump’s first rally since the onset of the coronavirus. Thousands packed the streets in support and opposition to Trump’s visit and I was in the middle of it, taking photos and video and listening to people’s stories.
When I returned from Tulsa, I called the Cleveland County Health Department to schedule a test. The woman who answered said they had received a record number of calls that day, “hundreds,” and I should instead go to the drive-thru testing site at Sooner Mall later in the week.
Few, including myself, were prepared for the turnout. Cars snaked through the northeast parking lot and wrapped around the exterior of the mall and down 36th Avenue.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. During the past couple of weeks, COVID-19 cases have spiked following the reopening of businesses, recent protests and the onset of summer.
On Thursday, 628 people waited in their cars for hours to have their nose swabbed, according to the Cleveland County Health Department. It was the county’s largest single-day sample collection.
As I sat parked among the sea of cars with the sun beaming through the windows, I wondered about the young man in the truck behind me and the blond woman to my left. Why were they getting tested?
I felt fine. I didn’t have symptoms. For me, and many others, the test was just a precaution.
Some were driven to the site after joining local protests spurred by the death of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis who died in police custody. Others decided to get a test after an 11-hour city budget meeting on June 16 attended by hundreds. Some citizens urged City Council members to cut police department funding and redistribute the money to community services, while others stood with police. (Norman Police Department’s proposed budget was cut by $865,000 by eliminating nine vacant positions.)
The long, packed meeting prompted Norman resident Sarah Warmker and city Mayor Breea Clark, who were both in attendance, to get tested at the pop-up site.
Warmker, 35, and her husband waved at friends from their car while they talked about the risk they knowingly took by attending the council meeting and recent protests.
“In the beginning, my focus was trying to control our exposure as much as possible by any means necessary. We went three months without eating takeout,” said Warmker, who didn’t have any symptoms except for a runny nose and sore throat that she attributed to allergies.
“Once the protests started, I realized if we don’t do something people are going to lose their lives,” she said. “So, now, my focus is more about doing the right thing regardless of the risk.”
Clark, who did not have any symptoms but was tested as a precaution, waited for more than two hours with her 13-year-old son in the car. She answered emails, participated in a conference call and caught up with friends on the phone that she spotted in line.
Clark said Cleveland County will likely see a spike in cases next week as results come back.
“I don’t think anyone wants to see us shut down again,” Clark said. “But it seems like a lot of cases are coming from bars, funerals, weddings, things like that, so maybe we could address those areas.”
Summer brings backyard barbecues and pool parties. A return to family gatherings prompted by holidays like Memorial Day, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. More people are attending weddings and funerals that were delayed this spring, and church services have resumed.
Isai Gonzalez and his wife, Kayleigh Gonzalez, pulled into the line at the test site around 8:45 a.m., 15 minutes before the site was scheduled to open. The pair drove from their home in south Oklahoma City, which is part of Cleveland County, because they recently developed a cough and congestion. They waited in line for about two hours with their 17-month-old son, Ellis, squirming in the back seat.
Isai Gonzalez returned to work in May. He’s an assistant business manager at Santa Fe South Schools. They started attending church services again and visited with family in small groups. They refused to attend family gatherings on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day to avoid the larger group settings.
But as they waited in line, they feared their efforts weren’t enough.
“We thought about the people that we would need to tell if we did get a positive result — family, coworkers, church,” Isai Gonzalez said. “We wondered where we could have contracted the virus. We also worried about our 17-month-old son, who has also been coughing. We feel awful knowing that we could have gotten him sick.”
I spent two and a half hours in my car Thursday waiting to be tested. I thought about my husband, who is the only person I’ve been in contact with since I returned from Tulsa on Sunday. I wondered if I had enough groceries to get through the rest of my quarantine. I had mixed emotions about a canceled Fourth of July celebration with family. I’m relieved they’re all being safe, but sad that I haven’t seen many of them in months.
I wondered how many people, like me, were looking around for a restroom and how many people were deterred by the long line.
Lyndsey Kelley, of Norman, was out picking up groceries when she decided it might be a good time to get tested, just as a precaution. But she took one look at the line and kept on driving. Kelley had four kids at home waiting for her and she didn’t have time to wait in line for hours.
As I pulled to the front of the line, relief briefly overcame my trepidation for what comes next. But then, a nurse approached my window and I was flooded with anxiety.
She confirmed my name and then asked me to pull my mask down revealing my nose but keeping my mouth covered in case I coughed.
The nurse plunged a swab into my left nostril and down my throat and then swirled it around for 10 seconds, a very long 10 seconds.
The encounter I waited two and a half hours for had lasted about a minute.
My eyes watered for over an hour and I had a headache most of the day. It was unpleasant, but bearable.
The nurse said to expect a call within 72 hours, regardless of the results.
The anxiety of waiting didn’t set in until Friday afternoon, when my Oklahoma Watch colleague Paul Monies, who was inside the arena where the president spoke, received his test result.
We were careful. We wore masks, washed our hands, used sanitizer and tried to keep our distance whenever possible. But maybe it wasn’t enough.
An epidemiologist said they can’t be certain where he contracted the virus, but the rally was a possibility.
So, now, I wait.
MORE FROM WHITNEY BRYEN
Behind the thousands of people who converged on downtown Tulsa in support or opposition to President Donald Trump are wide-ranging individual stories. Oklahoma Watch talked to several who came to hear Trump or protest nearby about what drove them to show up and take a stand.
An Oklahoma Watch analysis of state data found that inspectors identified no violations among the 10 nursing homes where COVID-19 infections were most rampant.
The night before was punctuated by rage and defiance, clashes with police and a spreading tide of fear. But a Black Lives Matter protest on Sunday offered a different vibe. Here are images from the gathering.