As of Thursday, April 30, we will be back on campus this fall, but things are definitely going to be different. We’ll be wearing face masks, social distancing, attending hybrid courses or even sitting in lecture halls installed with Plexiglas, per University of Arizona President Dr. Robert C. Robbins.
A huge part of this decision, he said, was getting faculty, staff and students to undergo antibody tests. These tests look at one’s blood to see if they contain antibodies, a protein in the body that can attach onto a virus and neutralize it. If the novel coronavirus is like most other viruses, then having antibodies against it should predict some form of immunity against it.
“The way that the antibodies dominantly work is they actually … neutralize the virus,” said Dr. Janko Nikolich-Zugich, chairman of the UA Department of Immunobiology and a researcher involved with the creation and execution of the antibody test.
Since everyone at the UA may end up having to get this test, let me give you a quick overview of the experience as a person who hates the very thought of blood.
My getting tested for COVID-19 antibodies was pure luck. I simply happened to be at the right place at the right time.
I actually was covering the press conference for the Daily Wildcat where Robbins announced fall in-person sessions. We were in the Cole and Jeannie Davis Sports Center, where the whole back half of it was filled with people getting their blood drawn for the test. Robbins himself had just finished it, so they set up the stage where he spoke within the sports center itself.
After the conference ended, I was packing up to leave when I was suddenly offered the test myself. One of the news stations wanted footage of an actual test being done, and I happened to be a UA student.
Now, I won’t lie, I was terrified. I had never even gotten my blood drawn before, and I absolutely hated the idea of it. Besides, I was itching to write up the in-person announcement story, and it was nearing 2 p.m. and I hadn’t yet eaten. Honestly, I almost refused it.
But there I was, five minutes later, filling out medical forms. How was I going to pass up this opportunity to find out if I am immune (or likely immune) to the coronavirus?
The forms were quick an easy, but they did require an identification. With my email input, I would receive my test results in a few days.
Now for the fun part.
For the blood draw, they sat me in one of those chairs where the arm rest is horizontal in front of you. The man performing the blood draw asked me which arm I wanted to do, and I told him the left one. He wrapped a tourniquet tight around my upper arm for a minute, then took it off. Then, he had me stretch out my arm and clench my left fist, and he rubbed disinfectant on the inside of my elbow.
That’s when I decided to look away. I wasn’t exactly enthused about watching the fluid that keeps me alive draining out of my body.
I felt a tiny prick in my arm. For all you native Tucsonans, it felt like getting stuck with a thorn. My reflexes told me to look at what it was, but the rest of me resisted. I was very, very determined not to faint while I had a TV camera on me.
After a second, though, the pain was gone. Yeah, the needle was still in me, but I didn’t feel it at all. I was dumbfounded, and I looked the part because I just kept laughing and saying, “Wow! I can’t even tell!”
About halfway through, I felt ever so slightly lightheaded, but that could have been me psyching myself out or just a consequence of my poor decision to do this on an empty stomach.
Then, after probably two or three minutes, I felt what I can only describe as a sort of light pressure disappear from my arm as the man said I was done. I looked back over just in time for him to put a small piece of cloth over the pin-sized prick in my arm as he said, “Hold that there.” I held the pressure over it for about 30 seconds.
Immediately, my eyes fell on the small vial of blood that hadn’t been there before I’d looked away. That was my blood in that little, roughly 6-inch tall vial. It was weird to see it — and so much of it, too.
Then the man put a Band-Aid on my arm and told me I could take it off after about 15 minutes.
“That’s it?” I asked him.
He nodded and said that was it. The news people filming me asked me what I thought of it, and I said exactly what I was thinking, that I didn’t realize how easy it was but also how much blood they got without me even really feeling it.
And that was it. I was free to go. I grabbed my stuff and headed out.
The next few days, I checked my email religiously for my results. It would certainly be a relief if I did have the antibodies. It could give me a little more peace of mind when I walk into a grocery store.
Finally, a week and a day later, I received my test results. By that time, I was convinced it had been lost in the mail — or, I guess, email.
I opened the email, clicked the link and — negative. Unfortunately, yes, the test was negative. I don’t have the antibodies for COVID-19, meaning my body currently does not have the ability to neutralize the virus. I have no form of immunity.
While I am disappointed to find out that I’m negative, for me, this just means I will keep doing the same things I’ve already been doing: social distancing, religious hand washing and home-staying.
As for my overall thoughts on the test, I think it was quick and easy. The best part is you don’t really have to see anything. For those of you afraid of needles, I never actually saw the needle at all. I didn’t see it on the table beforehand, I didn’t see it when it was in me and I didn’t even see if afterward. And for those of you like me who are horrified by surgery scenes on TV, you don’t have to see any blood if you don’t want to. The only reason I looked at the vial at all was so I could describe my feelings about it in this very column.
If you have the opportunity to do it, I recommend it. At this point, though, it’s not yet commonplace to get these tests. You can sign up for it, but thee's no guarantee of getting it just yet. For now, it’s primarily being done for health care workers and first responders ... and, apparently, unsuspecting student journalists who happen to be at the right place at the right time.
Follow Sam Burdette on Twitter