In case you have been wondering what happens if you need to be tested for COVID-19, my wife and I just experienced the process, after she was exposed to someone who had tested positive for the coronavirus. There were a few little surprises, but generally the experience has been a testament to how lucky we are to have such a professional, compassionate, and efficient county health department. (And yeah, we tested negative, so we're OK.)

Friday morning my wife's friend called to say that her husband had tested positive for the virus, and that my wife had been exposed. So we called the Cayuga Medical Center number we found on the Tompkins County Health Department website to make appointments for us both, and they scheduled us for 3 o'clock Friday afternoon. A bit later in the day she was contacted by the Health Department to tell her she had been exposed. She told them we already had appointments to be tested.

The Health Department Web site warns that the wait time to be tested can be 45 minutes or so -- in other words, be prepared to wait. We drove behind the Shops at Ithaca Mall to the testing station entryway, and were directed into one of a few 'aisles' that had been set up. As we drove through the spiral path, it reminded me of standing in line for Disney Land rides, except we didn't get to go on Space Mountain when we got to the head of the line.

The testing station is beneath a large tent next to the mall. A station with test kits and equipment is inside the mall, with the door left open so the testers can get in and out quickly.

We were charmed -- there was only one car in front of us. We were waived in within a minute, and a professional person, well protected with super-masks and clothing, asked a few questions -- were we directly exposed (wife yes, me no)? Were we experiencing any COVID symptoms? (wife no, me no).

A moment later two professionals came back with test kits, essentially a test tube with a swab, labeled with our information, one on each side of the car. Mine told me that the swab would be inserted into a nostril, and that I should expect a moment of discomfort, but it would be over quickly.

OK, when a doctor or nurse says "a moment of discomfort" or "just a little pinch" I think everyone knows that is 'doctor code' for 'extreme pain'. I have always thought that's a terrible approach. After all, if you are anticipating something horrible and it turns out to be less than that you can walk away feeling pretty good because it was a way better experience than you feared. But if you are expecting just a little discomfort and it actually hurts... well, you know the routine.

With that in mind, my wife had shared some advice with me that she got from someone whose job requires him to be tested once a week. His opinion was that it is fairly awful, but he had figured out a way to mitigate the 'momentary discomfort'. So we were prepared for the worst, and it turned out to not be so bad.

When the swab was inserted it actually was startling, but it was over so fast that I barely had time to register that fact. I once had a firefly propelled into my left ear, and I'm here to tell you that the COVID test is a lot less pain than a firefly in your ear.

(It happened at 2am one morning, and evidently the firefly was hit by a ceiling fan blade with exceptional aim, because, as I slept, it was propelled so far into my ear that it couldn't get out. Lord knows it tried!  Believe me, that firefly and I were in perfect accord on wanting it out, but neither of us could figure out how.  I called the hospital -- they told me I'd better come to the emergency room, so I went, with the firefly signalling a left turn the whole way there. Alas, the firefly didn't survive, but, happily, I did.)

Meanwhile, my wife received a text from the Health Department explaining that she would have to quarantine, and for how long, depending on whether she tested positive or negative. Even with a negative result she would be required to quarantine for at least another week, and they would contact her each day to ask whether she was feeling any symptoms. They are serious about the requirement -- you can be fined if you break quarantine. You don't want to mess around.

We were emailed a link to the hospital's online patient portal - me the next day, and my wife the day after that -- where we could access our test results. Both results reported the coronavirus was 'undetected', meaning we tested negative. They included a warning that a negative result does not preclude having it, but basically we felt we were in the clear as both of us have been careful during this whole pandemic. As of this writing she is still in quarantine -- here's the surprise -- I'm not. If she does exhibit symptoms I expect I will be, but so far she is as healthy as a horse.

Really, I don't know where that expression comes from. Don't horses ever get sick? It's like 'dead as a doornail' as if doornails were ever alive in the first place...

All of which brings me back to how lucky we are to have such a professional, compassionate, and efficient county health department. Until recently Tompkins County residents had suffered zero coronavirus deaths, and the percentage of positive test results were relatively low. As of this writing (Tuesday) there have been five deaths, and there are only four COVID hospitalizations, part of a surge we are currently suffering, and most of the deaths are from one outbreak in an elder-care facility. Certainly every life matters, but our county is one of the safest places in the nation during this horrible pandemic.

I attribute that success to our Health Department, which stepped up immediately when the coronavirus was identified, providing strong guidance and leadership, communicating often and accurately, and helping schools, places of worship, businesses, organizations, and individuals figure out what they can and can't do.

My wife and I had our first experience with our Health Department last year when it turned out we had been exposed to measles on a flight we had been on. They were really on the ball, checking with us every day until the exposure period was up.

But a small plane full of potential measles exposures is nothing compared to a world-wide pandemic, and I have been astounded by all the balls the department staff have managed to keep in the air, including the individual attention we have been receiving this week.

That is the reason Tompkins County is so safe, relative to just about anywhere else in the country, despite the surge, despite the reintroduction of college students from all over the place in the fall, despite all of it. It is amazing to know how well these folks are taking care of all of us in a time when we certainly need it.