The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Massachusetts is not an accurate reflection of the number of people who are actually sick because delays in testing have left symptomatic patients with nowhere to turn — except back into their communities, possibly spreading germs.
Last Wednesday, I developed sudden vomiting that I wrote off as food poisoning. By Thursday I had a low grade fever. Friday morning, I woke up with a dry hacking cough and tightness in my chest. Though I am only 41, I am immuno-compromised with underlying infections — one of which, babesiosis, is a parasite that usurps the oxygen in the red blood cells — I was concerned about Covid-19. Wearing mask and gloves, I went for an appointment with my primary care doctor. After a negative flu test and a low peak flow test that measures the air flow from my lungs, she concluded that I could possibly have Covid-19, though it could be another virus too.
We had no way of knowing, because we had no access to testing. Over the next three days, my doctor and I tried in vain to get a Covid-19 test for me. The governor’s office directed me to the Department of Public Health, which directed me to the Department of Epidemiology, which took my information for a call back my doctor never received. I phoned every hospital in Boston. Each told me that despite my symptoms and compromised immune system, I could be tested only if I had traveled outside of the United States or had been in direct contact with someone who had tested positive for Covid-19.
But how would that person know, since they likely couldn’t get a test either?
We have no way of knowing how many other people have been similarly turned away. People who are hopefully taking necessary precautions by practicing social distancing, but who may be next to you in the store trying to grab that last roll of toilet paper. Or people like the man at Dartmouth who was told to self-quarantine until he got results, but instead went to a party. Then we have people flying in from other countries, some of whom have been screened, some who have been quarantined, and some, even from Asia and Europe, who have been waved right through. Inconsistent policies have caused chaos and likely community spread. President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency came too late, and his statement that “anyone who wants a test, will get a test,” was, at least until yesterday, fake news.
On Friday afternoon, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health released a list of people who could be tested for Covid-19. Technically, I could be tested because I fit category 8, “symptomatic individuals for whom knowledge of Covid-19 is medically indicated, including older individuals and those with co-morbidities.” And yet, the test itself, I was told, would not be available until Monday.
On Monday, six days after my initial onset of symptoms, I was finally granted that test, but the inconsistent safety precautions and incredible number of resources used just to have it done horrified me. To get to the testing tent outside the hospital without using public transportation or risking infection to a Lyft driver, I was instructed to call 911 and ask for a non-emergency ride. I asked if I would be taken back home, too. The nurse laughed. “Of course,” she said. “They wouldn’t just strand you there!”
I envisioned a van driven by someone in mask and gloves. What arrived, however, was an ambulance unit specifically used for potential Covid-19 cases, with crew essentially dressed in hazmat suits. After they cleared the elevator and lobby of my building, I was guided into an ambulance that was followed to the hospital by a police escort, with lights flashing, sirens on. Instead of being dropped at the blue tent, the decision was made — perhaps because of my symptoms, perhaps because of a breakdown in communication by medical personnel just trying to do their best with ever-changing protocols — to wheel me by gurney into a quarantined room. There, I was finally tested. I get the results Friday.
Afterward, I asked how to reconnect with the special Covid-19 unit for a ride home. The nurse looked at me quizzically and said, “I don’t know who told you that, but there’s no such thing as a non-emergency ride home. Just take a Lyft.”
We are in the midst of a pandemic that is changing by the hour. Health care workers in Boston and around the country are doing their best to prepare and care, with mixed messages trickling down from an unacceptable federal response. The nurse agreed with me that it seemed absurd to protect everyone on the way in, only to let me potentially infect anyone on the way out, but told me that the rules that were in place at 8:00 a.m. may have been totally different than what was in place by the time I left the hospital.
The bottom line is, with these types of inconsistencies, community spread is inevitable. People with symptoms should have easy and efficient access to testing. Hospital resources should be saved for people who really need them — those with severe breathing problems or high fever. I didn’t need an ambulance ride to a hospital; I just needed a test. But once I was taken to a hospital, I never should have been left to walk right back out, wearing my own mask and gloves, to possibly infect someone on my way home. Safety protocols need to be in place across the board.
Jennifer Crystal teaches at Grub Street Creative Writing Center, and writes a weekly column for Global Lyme Alliance.
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