With Crosswords, Audiobooks And Patience, Hundreds Wait Hours For COVID Tests

Dec 15, 2020

To help alleviate the long lines at free COVID-19 test sites, Massachusetts public health officials opened several new centers this week — including in western Massachusetts.

But it’s been a frustrating few months trying to get tested, especially for those without symptoms who had little choice about where to go before now.

Considering the hundreds of people sitting in their cars at Holyoke Community College waiting for up to three hours to have a swab put in their nose, it was a very mellow scene one day last week for a group of Massachusetts drivers.

Still, it was no party.

"We're hoping we're actually going to make it and get tested and not have to do it tomorrow,” said Miriam Torres from West Springfield.

Torres, who works in a bank, was sitting on the passenger side of a car with driver Darren Gilbert, who works in a school.

“I've been here once and they said they ran out of tests,” Torres said.

Torres and Gilbert went in search of COVID-19 tests after they learned they had been exposed to someone in their home who tested positive.

They arrived on the community college campus at 4:15 p.m. After 45 minutes, they really hadn’t moved, Gilbert said.

A few vehicles ahead of them, Steve Gronski from Agawam sat in his pickup truck, windows down and classic rock turned up loud.

“I was here earlier, and I left because the line was too long,” Gronski said. “I don't understand why the line takes so long to move.”

At busy times, hundreds of cars sit for five to 10 minutes at a time. When the line moves, cars advance about three car lengths.

Gronski said he had no other options in the immediate area.

“All the other testing sights that I checked out were appointment-only and they were booked up days in advance. There was nothing open 10 or 15 miles within my location,” Gronski said.

Waiting a few days until the state opened additional free sites wasn’t an option. One of Gronski's co-workers tested positive. The precision machine shop where he works in Westfield shut down and everyone was required to get tested.

Coincidentally, just a few cars ahead of Gronski was his boss, Steven Hitchcock.

Hitchcock, from Feeding Hills, said about 15 of his employees were sitting in their vehicles in front and behind him. Fifty-five people work at the shop.

“Some got tested yesterday,” Hitchcock said. “The line moved extremely fast.”

Hitchcock’s business makes intricate aircraft parts for commercial and military planes. It's a financial hit to close the shop, and this time of year Hitchcock said they usually do inventory. That schedule's been knocked off.

But the sentiment among many in this line, including Hitchcock, was that during the pandemic people do what they have to do.

“I don't mind waiting,” he said. “This is the new norm until the vaccine comes out.”

To pass the time, Hitchcock had been listening to a John Grisham audiobook. Others in line watched movies on their phones. Couples said they were catching up with each other. No one with kids would roll down their window to speak, but the kids at least looked like they were having fun.

The North Star of this constellation of cars was Tom Sherwin. In the past few weeks, at the busiest times, it may be two hours before drivers see him. With no irony, he explained he was a parking attendant.

“We have to get them out of one parking lot, put them in the other,” explained Sherwin. “In other words, keep the traffic off [the main road at the entrance].”

The vehicle route can feel a bit like waiting for a ride at Disney World. Suddenly you're moving along at 10 miles per hour, going into a lot, and — if this your first time — you may think, “I made it! I'm at the testing site!”

You're not. You just made it to the next level of waiting.

Despite the letdown some may experience, Sherwin said most people are pretty nice — even after a tedious wait.

“[The system] gets better organized as it goes along,” Sherwin said. “Some people come once a week. The older people — they come in three times a week. I recognize the cars.”

On this clear evening, with another 90 minutes before the testing site was scheduled to close, Claire Paquette and her husband from Southampton did crossword puzzles to pass the time. They'd been sitting in their car for an hour.

They didn’t have any virus symptoms, Paquette said. It was just time to get tested. With the sun just setting, Paquette said the waiting was “actually kind of nice.”

“No bad drivers. No horn-honking,” she said. “We’re all here for the same thing. No reason to be in a rush.”

Paquette may be the kind of person who sees the glass half-full. She thought the line was moving pretty well.