By The Washington Post · Ruth Eglash · WORLD, MIDDLE-EAST
It's a virus that has the world on its knees, so when Maccabi Healthcare Services recently unveiled what it billed as a simple one-stop testing booth, I was curious.
Could this be the solution to freeing millions of Israelis from a months-long lockdown? If anyone could go to a health clinic for a fast and fairly painless test, confirm whether they have the virus, seek treatment and isolate themselves, then maybe our lives could get back on track.
I decided I had to go see this "roadside" testing booth for myself.
In Israel, which has managed to keep the number of covid-19 cases and related deaths relatively low - as of Friday, there were roughly 14,800 confirmed infections and fewer than 200 deaths - there is still quite strict criteria on who can take a coronavirus test.
Showing no symptoms of the virus, not having traveled overseas lately and not living in a high-risk area, I did not qualify for a test, but when I asked Maccabi if I could try out the new testing booth, it readily agreed - though my results would not be fully processed.
Part of me was relieved. I had already thought about what a positive result might mean for me, my husband and our two teenage daughters, who have all been stuck at home with me since early March. Even if I tested negative, I wasn't sure I really wanted to appear in Israel's digitalized medical system as being a suspected carrier.
The concept of the testing booth is simple. It is basically a booth that allows the examiner to stand safely inside, eliminating the need for protective personal equipment as they interact with patients from behind a fiberglass screen. They administer the test through oversized rubber gloves that poke out of the booth. Immediately after each test, the examiner presses down on a foot pump that sprays disinfecting soap over the outside of the booth, including on the gloves.
As nervous as I felt, I was so excited to get out of the house after six weeks of lockdown.
I approached the booth awkwardly, hampered by a face mask and a funky GoPro on my head (to film the process). I strained to hear the tester's instructions, wondering if a face mask hampered one's hearing too.
"Come closer but don't touch anything," he said, directing me to swipe my health insurance card and then, after a quick scan of my details on his computer, ordered me to hold up my ID card.
Israeli law requires citizens to join one of four public health funds, services heavily subsidized by the government to ensure that everyone has access to health care. I am a member of the Maccabi health organization.
I watched as a pair of giant rubber gloves clipped open a test tube and withdrew an extra-long Q-tip-type stick. The tester instructed me to open my mouth wide and poked around inside, reaching the back of my throat, scraping for a few seconds on the top of my tongue. It was very similar to the DNA test I did myself a few years ago, but obviously I was much more gentle. Then came the kicker: He told me to tilt my head back before pushing the same swab up my left nostril.
But it was over in seconds and I felt no lingering pain.
I watched as the tester placed the resealed test tube with my sample inside into a cooler box attached to the booth. Then began the process of sterilizing the outside of the stand.
According to Ran Sa'ar, Maccabi's chief executive, the development and building of the testing booth took less than a week. The health fund is working to improve and modify the idea.
"The great thing about this testing booth is that it's not only simple and easy to assemble, it is also very cheap to manufacture," Sa'ar said in an interview with The Washington Post.
Maccabi has some 2.4 million members and, in regular times, carries out about 25,000 different kinds of medical tests per day. Sa'ar said the plan is to place these booths at each of his organization's clinics.
There are still some barriers though. At the start of Israel's outbreak, Magen David Adom, Israeli's first-aid agency, hurried to take up the challenge of testing for the virus, and the government is still reluctant to open up the process. But Sa'ar, along with the heads of the other public health funds, is pushing to have the testing process transferred to them. This would not only increase the number of tests being carried out - this week Israel reached more than 10,000 tests per day - but it would also enable the virus to be tracked more effectively, Sa'ar said.
As I drove home from Jaffa, I wondered to myself if what I had just experienced could soon become the new norm shaped by the coronavirus crisis. Will we all need to stand in front of a booth like that every time we get a sore throat, or have been near someone who has covid-19, or when we want to travel?
The anonymous tester, the giant gloves, even the cotton swab deep up my nostrils - if that's what we have to do to reclaim our pre-coronavirus lives, at least until a cure or a vaccine, then I can live with that.