Israel’s Health Ministry recently approved the use of COVID self-testing kits – rapid antigen tests that my fellow hypochondriacs can pick up at pharmacies. Now that they’re finally on sale, Haaretz has sent your correspondent on a mission to do something mildly unpleasant for your benefit: to acquire, test and chronicle the experience of using one of these kits.
Are they easy to acquire?
No, or at least not in central Tel Aviv. I visited five pharmacy branches on a Thursday night and inquired about availability, and heard different shades of the same thing: “We only get them in once or twice a week, and we only get about 20 at a time. Come back on Sunday or Monday.”
A particularly sympathetic pharmacist whispered to me that if I’m desperate, I can get in-store testing done the following morning at a competing chain and, seeing how crestfallen I was, offered me a warm beverage.
Eventually, I returned the following Sunday morning and was able to snag a test and take it home with me.
The rapid antigen test comes at the cost of 40 shekels (about $12.50) and ramming a stick up your own nose.
This lack of availability shouldn’t hamper anyone who really needs a COVID test. There are myriad “official” testing options – including rapid antigen tests administered by professionals and the PCR swabs we know and love – readily available throughout the country.
- Israel hits seven-month high in COVID infections; booster vaccine drive expanded to 30 and older
- Israel to start using rapid tests as new restrictions require eventgoers to prove immunity
- Israel is buying up super-fast coronavirus test kits. Experts are skeptical
Wait – home tests don’t count as official proof of a negative test result? I can’t use it for the Green Pass? How about flights abroad?
No, no! and also, no.
An insert in the test kit box from the Health Ministry reads: “This test is not suitable for confirmation of diagnoses, reducing quarantine or proof of illness. In the event that there is a reason to believe that you have been exposed to a coronavirus patient/someone who has tested positive for COVID, or if you have symptoms that characterize a carrier of the virus, you must take a PCR test at a designated location.”
If you test negative but still have symptoms, you should take another test in a day or two, because it can take a little while for the virus to be detected by tests. If you test positive, you should self-isolate immediately and invite a health care professional to test you within no less than 48 hours.
So what are they for?
I’ll try to answer this question with a personal story.
In 2018, I took a flight from Newark Airport to Tel Aviv. Upon alighting, my skin did what it absolutely always does when going from a very dry environment to a very humid one or vice versa: It broke out in a red, itchy rash.
I, a profoundly vaccinated adult, was certain that I had contracted airplane measles; that I had given everyone else on the flight airplane measles; and that I was about to become persona non grata internationally, known across the globe for starting a new airplane measles contagion.
In other words: These fast COVID tests were made for me – and, if you’re reading this article, probably also for you. They are neither diagnostically nor legally valid, but they go far in soothing your trembling inner Chihuahua.
They’re also suitable for anyone who has ever wanted to experience the anxiety and terror of taking a home pregnancy test but has never had the need, or biological ability, to do it.
Tell me about the kit.
The gorgeous blue box (sleek! Sexy! Multilingual!) contains a Panbio brand test kit manufactured by the U.S.-based Abbott Laboratories. (Other brands are available.) Each one holds one tube, a cap for said tube, a tiny bottle of buffer liquid, a swab (long! Imposing!), a plastic bag and a rack for your tube. It also holds the test device itself, which, for some of us, will bring back memories of hunching over while seated on the toilet, waiting to see whether or not your life is ruined.
For millennials, the kit conjures a mixture of associations and feelings. Twisting the winged plastic cap of the buffer liquid will bring you back to opening the soft little Kool-Aid bottles your mom packed into your summer camp snack bags. Waiting to see if one or two lines would appear on the test device will obviously feel familiar to many.
Is it accurate?
The company that manufactures the test states that when performed correctly, it has been shown in clinical evaluations to identify 99.8 percent of negative nasal samples and 98.1 percent of positive nasal samples.
The operative word here is “correctly.” Although the process is easy, there are other ways it can go wrong – cross-contamination; not putting the swab far enough into your nose; peeing on the test instead – that can give you invalid results. Besides “positive” or “negative,” your test result can also come back “invalid” – that is, the device shows you that it did not work correctly, which indicates you should retake the test.
Is it easy to use?
Technically, yes. The process seems to have been streamlined as much as possible. From unboxing to results, it only takes about 20 minutes, depending on how long it takes you to psych yourself up to stick the swab up your nose. The instructions, which come in Hebrew, Arabic, English and Greek for some reason (sorry Russian speakers), are straightforward and include detailed pictograms.
But if the past year has taught me anything, it is that even when some people are presented with very clear, simple and reasoned instructions, they will find ways to botch them magnificently. I have seen, more than once, a bus passenger remove their mask, wipe their nose and mouth with a hand that had just been clutching a filthy pole, and then put the hand back on said pole. These people might struggle with the self-test, among other things.
Walk me through it.
Essentially, the process contains four actions: getting the buffer fluid into the tube, swabbing your nostrils, swirling your swab into the tube for a bit and getting the tube liquid onto the testing device. The preparations make you feel like a little scientist, and are very empowering. Maybe you were cut out for med school after all.
The instructions tell you to insert the soft end of the swab “straight back into your nostril until resistance is felt (about two centimeters).” I am no stranger to the sensation of a giant cotton swab spelunking around my nostrils, and although it was daunting, I found it easier to self-administer than I thought. But while the feeling is alien and unpleasant, it is not painful, and it does reward you. Afterward, your sinuses feel as cool, clear and fresh as winter in the Swiss Alps.
After you do the science and squeeze the drops of your nose germs onto the test kit, you are left alone with your thoughts for 15 minutes. You’re not supposed to look at the test before the time is up (a cheeky little reminder: no peeking!), so it’s a great time to reflect.
You have no symptoms, but neither did so many coronavirus patients. If you test positive, the entire Haaretz newsroom needs to get tested, too – and some of them are real people, with children and everything. You also need to tell all the friends you’ve seen, and the person you went on a bad first date with, who chewed with their mouth open and claimed that rhinoceroses are imaginary.
Now is a good time to read the insert. Apparently, you can test positive if you don’t have COVID-19 but do have SARS. What if you have SARS? It lists many other diseases that have no bearing on the test, so what if you’ve been carrying them the entire time?
After convincing myself that I have the flu, Legionnaires’ disease and the Ebola virus simultaneously, my 15 minutes were up.
I was greeted with one red line across the area marked “C”: a negative result. I released my tension, backspaced my impending Google search (“How long incubation period hemorrhagic fever?”) and shot my editor a WhatsApp letting him know that I, and by extension we, are fine. Due to a miscommunication, he did not receive this message clearly, and called me in a panic that he frankly deserved after making me taste the worst falafel on the northern hemisphere.
When all is said and done, I would take the self-test again. It puts the mind at ease, and the 15 minutes of waiting is the most alive I have felt in ages. It’s a good just-in-case measure to keep in the pantry, especially for parents of particularly snot-ridden children. Pick one up if you can find one. And just in case, make sure to load up your Netflix queue before you use it.