Students navigate COVID-19 test options

Many students have utilized at-home tests or drive through testing for COVID-19.

Emma Koehler, Staff Writer

What was supposed to be a simple trip to Kansas City to visit family turned into a nightmare, especially as very few were wearing masks within still high rates of COVID-19 during the spring of 2021. Symptomatic and frustrated, sophomore French 2+2 major Emily Wilding returned to UNI campus where she later tested positive and was moved to isolation. Fast forward to today, and Wilding has developed parosmia: the long-term loss or altered sense of smell that is currently incurable. 

“I still witness many frustrations to this day about having COVID-19 and I don’t see them ending anytime soon,” said Wilding. 

The pandemic world is full of uncertainty, and it has since the early stages of COVID-19. Questions surrounding transmission rates, isolation lengths and vaccination status were common. Confusion and misunderstanding still exist about many factors including wearing masks, new variants and the types and processes with which to get a COVID-19 test. 

Chief Medical Officer and Vice President of Medical Affairs for MercyOne Northeast Iowa Matthew Sojka compared the beginning of the pandemic to the current state as, “Originally we didn’t have very many tests. Going back a year and a half ago, March or April, and you were told if somebody were sick enough, they might have gotten tested in the emergency room or through the fever and upper respiratory clinics.” He added, “We didn’t have enough tests to go around.” 

Sojka continued to explain the surge that hit about a year ago in November and December 2020. He said there were tests, but not enough to keep up with the amount of people that were sick, so supply was strained.

“This time around, we’ve been able to keep up on the hospital side and in our clinics having availability,” Sojka said. “We do have testing supplies at this time to take care of the community and for you to find out whether you have COVID-19.” 

UNI students can be tested for COVID-19 on campus at the Student Health Clinic and many think of this as the first logical option. No specific test information is listed on the Student Health Clinic’s website, such as what variety of tests are offered. However, an anonymous source from the clinic mentioned several different tests, including at-home tests available within the front doors of the clinic. 

Students are encouraged to call 319-273-2100 to schedule an appointment for a test as well as utilize the Panther Health Survey if experiencing symptoms or have been exposed. 

If a student has their coverage on file with the health clinic, the clinic will bill the insurance company for any charges that may incur. As stated on the Student Health Clinic’s website, “Any charges that are not covered by the insurance company will be transferred to the student’s U-bill account.” 

This was a concern for junior social work major and psychology minor, Kailee Farrell. She did utilize testing through the Student Health Clinic when they offered free testing at one point. She recalled, “At the time, I had no health insurance. This was a bit of a concern for me which is why I was very happy to hear the Student Health Clinic was offering free testing.”

When Farrell began to develop symptoms again, she was concerned what costs she may face if she sought out testing, as she had just gotten new insurance. She knew that if she either stayed on campus or went to seek tests off campus, she would face the same uncertainty either way as the free testing period from the Student Health Clinic had passed.  

Within the Cedar Falls and Waterloo community, outside of campus, there are additional options for COVID-19 tests. Some of these options include CVS, Walgreens, Urgent Care clinics, and Test Iowa. Testing options today continue to be advanced and useful in determining the virus. 

Sojka said those seeking COVID-19 tests should first evaluate if they are symptomatic or asymptomatic. If they are symptomatic, he suggested using at-home test options. 

“They’re cheap, they’re easy to get, they’re readable in 15 minutes, so that’s a nice option,” said Sojka.

If an individual is asymptomatic but believes they may have been exposed, Sojka suggests a PCR test from Test Iowa as he said it is easy and very accurate. 

“All of our MercyOne primary care sites have those Test Iowa kits available to pick up and then you do your own process,” said Sojka.

Both CVS and Walgreens offer live testing and at-home test options. Interested individuals of live testing fill out an initial questionnaire for both places to determine symptoms and transmission details. Options for the type of tests are determined from the questionnaire and based on location. 

Junior early childhood education major Addie Young is one UNI student who did utilize at-home testing and said, “I got my COVID-19 tests from Target using the drive-up service. I did the test at home and got results within 10 minutes.”

Young has also used testing locations in the past but wanted to use the at-home tests for immediate results as she works in a daycare setting and the cost of them was not an issue for her. She credits the at-home tests as well as other testing locations as great options for whichever an individual may prefer. 

CVS offers one drive-through testing location in Waterloo where a PCR, also commonly known as the COVID-19 lab test, is available and provides results in two days. According to the CVS testing website, the Waterloo location is a community testing location and is free of cost, individuals do not even need to present insurance information. The at-home options CVS has available include one type of PCR test and three different types of rapid diagnostic tests, all available online and various in-store availability. 

Walgreens has one location in Cedar Falls and three locations in Waterloo for live testing. All but one Waterloo location offers both PCR and rapid testing, whereas one Waterloo location only offers PCR testing. Individuals needing testing can remain in their vehicle and are expected to perform the swab themselves under the direction of an employee, according to the Walgreens testing website. Also online is an interactive testing availability scale according to location and details on what locations offer free testing. Three options of at-home rapid and PCR tests are available online with various in-store quantities. 

“The PCR test is very accurate,” said Sojka, “The one problem with the PCR test is it stays positive for several weeks after you may have COVID-19.” 

Another opportunity for at-home testing is through Test Iowa. Test Iowa will mail kits to residences and has kit pick-up locations all over Iowa, free of charge. Test Iowa’s website has instructions on how to request and pick up a kit, activation instructions, the appropriate way to collect a sample, and how to return the kit. However, the request form from Test Iowa’s website states, “At-home Test Kit(s) will be shipped via UPS and processing may take up to one week to be shipped to your home.” 

Sophomore business administration major Connor Olson recalled his experience with Test Iowa location testing as very easy and said, “We drove through and the test was very quick and mostly painless, just uncomfortable.” He also goes to explain the process as, “I simply logged onto the Test Iowa website and signed up for a date and time. When the time came, I drove to the site wearing a mask, rolled down my window when it was my turn, they performed the test, and I went on home.” 

Initially, Sojka recalled feeling nervous about the at-home tests as there was not much data on them. Currently however he said, “They’re as accurate as a strep screening or flu test in the offices that you’ve been going to for primary care.” 

Urgent Care Clinics, such as MercyOne, hold both in-person and telehealth appointment options at available clinic locations. As suggested on MercyOne’s testing website, if an individual is showing symptoms, they should contact their local health care provider. If an individual needs a health care provider, they can also find that information on the testing website. A provider will decide if a patient needs to be referred to one of the many testing sites MercyOne offers. The Cedar Falls/Waterloo/Oelwein/Northeast Iowa locations will only accept individuals who are referred by a primary care provider. 

“I think right now the testing, you’re going to see these options continue in the community as we move forward,” Sojka said.