How I Finally Got a Coronavirus Test

A nurse at a drive up COVID-19 coronavirus testing station, set up by the University of Washington Medical Center, holds a bag containing a swab used to take a sample from the nose of a person in their car, Friday, March 13, 2020, in Seattle.

A nurse at a drive up COVID-19 coronavirus testing station, set up by the University of Washington Medical Center, holds a bag containing a swab used to take a sample from the nose of a person in their car, Friday, March 13, 2020, in Seattle. Associated Press

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

After almost a week of illness and testing negative for flu, strep throat and mono, a reporter on Monday is tested for Covid-19.

Update: On Friday, March 27, eleven days after she was tested for the coronavirus, Kate Queram got the result of her test. She was told she did not have Covid-19.

Let’s begin here: I’ve been sick for the past week. My symptoms include fever, sore throat, cough, and headache. Lab tests for multiple strains of flu, strep throat and mono have all come back negative. Doctors think I probably have some sort of “viral infection.”

The conclusion you are drawing—you, and everyone in my personal life—is that I have Covid-19. Your certainty on this likely solidifies when I tell you that I reside in Montgomery County, where Maryland’s first cases of coronavirus were confirmed and the place that, as I write this, has more confirmed cases than any other county in the state. (That number, as far as I can tell, does not include the positive test result from a patient who sought treatment at the same urgent care clinic where I have been receiving care for the past week, which I overheard a nurse reporting to the state as I waited for my appointment this morning.)

But the truth is that I don’t know if I have Covid-19. I wasn’t able to get tested until today, day seven of my illness, when my doctor’s appointment and my clinic’s ability to administer the test finally lined up. I asked about the test the first day I sought treatment—last Tuesday, which in this pandemic timeline may as well have been 50 years ago. I was told then that only emergency rooms had the capability to test patients. But because I had so many symptoms, and because I have not recently traveled or knowingly come into contact with a person who tested positive, I would be an unlikely testing candidate even in an ER, the doctor said.

I should go to the emergency room if my fever spiked over 103 degrees, she advised, or if my symptoms worsened, but that advice was standard care protocol that had nothing to do with coronavirus specifically. Essentially, there was no way for me to get tested for Covid-19.

So I went home to wait for lab results from more comprehensive test panels for flu and strep. I started precautionary antibiotics and a course of Tamiflu, along with pills for my cough and thrice-daily doses of ibuprofen for my fever. After two days of this regimen—which included self-quarantining in my bedroom, a floor away from my husband and twin toddlers—I had not noticeably improved. 

My fever came and went, spiking as high as 103.4 degrees and breaking entirely twice, only to come back later. My tonsils grew larger and turned completely white, making it difficult to speak and to swallow, even water. On the third day, a doctor from the clinic called to check in and to let me know that the lab tests for additional strains of flu and strep were negative. I was not, I informed him, doing much better.

He shuffled papers, then asked, “Did they run a test for mono?”

I sighed. “No,” I said.

He told me to come back in for additional testing if my fever hadn’t broken by the next morning. My temperature was elevated when I woke up that day, last Friday, so I went back in, to sit in the same waiting room chair and watch the same five-person panel on the Today Show have the same conversation about coronavirus. I had the same cultures taken to run the same lab tests, along with a blood test for mono. I asked, again, about coronavirus, and was told, again, that even if they could test for it, they probably wouldn’t, given my lack of travel, shortness of breath or contact with an infected person.

I got a shot of steroids and one of painkillers to help relieve the swelling in my throat and was told to come back Monday morning for another check-up and to get my lab results. As of that last appointment, I had no fever, and my tonsils look better, though swallowing still feels like my throat is fighting a pack of switchblades. All of my lab tests were normal, they told me. Almost out of habit, I asked again about coronavirus.

“Well,” the doctor said. “Let me check with the other doctor.”

The clinic, I learned, had received test kits over the weekend, and today, they would be happy to test me for Covid-19. The test was easy—a quick nasal swab, similar to what you’d undergo for a flu diagnosis—though the nurse who administered it stayed at arm’s length, clad in full-body haz-mat garb. The results will be available in four to five days, by which point it’s likely that my body will have mostly healed from whatever it’s been fighting, regardless of diagnosis.

This experience has been frustrating, but it’s not unique. The United States has failed to provide sufficient numbers of test kits to health care professionals, or to put in place protocols that would adequately test and diagnose larger numbers of people. Since I got sick, experts have estimated that the rapid uptick in coronavirus cases has been at least partially driven by infected people without symptoms mingling in public, unknowingly spreading the virus to others. Broad measures to stop that spread—school closures, mandatory work-from-home policies, municipal curfews, business shutdowns—are also designed to curb that commingling. 

Testing has become more available in recent days—I am here, living proof—but details of that availability are sketchy and difficult to find. I reached out to the Maryland Department of Health to find out when private health care providers here were given the option to begin testing, who is processing those samples, and how residents can find out where to get tested and was directed to a video of a press conference with Gov. Larry Hogan and several state officials. At the event, Fran Phillips, deputy security for public health services, told reporters that Maryland has taken steps to make testing more accessible, including by relaxing the criteria of who can be tested—but those efforts are limited by nationwide shortages in both test kits and the chemicals needed to process them in labs.

“There is, in fact, a logjam,” she said. “Every hospital in the state is experiencing that, and every commercial lab.”

While I wait for my test results, I was instructed to wear a mask around my children and to keep doing the things we’ve all been instructed to do: Stay home. Don’t touch your face. Wash your hands, a lot. This advice is oft-repeated, for two reasons: These methods work to protect people and they’re about the only ones that medical professionals are sure do so effectively.

“There’s a lot we still don’t know,” my doctor told me before I left, then paused. “So here we go.”

OTHER STORIES on Route Fifty:

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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