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Fever, cough, chest tightness — but she can’t get tested for the coronavirus

Amid a national shortage, Rhode Island officials are forced to prioritize who can get tested -- and who cannot

Suzanne Ellis Wernevi of Providence
Suzanne Ellis Wernevi of ProvidenceStephanie Alvarez Ewens (custom credit)/Stephanie Alvarez Ewens

PROVIDENCE — Her fever spiked on Wednesday night.

So Suzanne Ellis Wernevi immediately called her doctor to see if she could get tested for the coronavirus.

In short, the answer was no.

Wernevi — a Providence resident who runs a fine jewelry company — said the doctor told her that COVID-19 testing in Rhode Island is limited to people who are hospitalized, living in a nursing home, or healthcare workers who could have been exposed to the virus.

“You are being tested only if you are in acute respiratory distress and admitted — or you are in the NBA,” she said. “I’m not either of those.”

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Wernevi’s experience reflects mounting frustration and anxiety among Rhode Islanders who have been unable to get prompt testing to determine if they have COVID-19, the respiratory ailment that arises from exposure to the new coronavirus.

Facing a national shortage of testing equipment and swabs, Rhode Island health officials say they have to prioritize testing. In addition to hospital patients, nursing home residents, and health care professionals, health officials say people with symptoms who have come in contact with an infected person or have traveled to hotspot countries also can be tested.

Despite those limitations, Rhode Island still is testing more people per capita than most states, officials say. But during a news conference on Thursday, Governor Gina M. Raimondo acknowledged that “We are not where we need to be.”

“Please be patient,” she said. “It will be better tomorrow than today.”

Raimondo put out the call for local manufacturers, vendors, and suppliers to provide not only swabs for testing, but also face masks, gowns, and other personal protective equipment for healthcare workers.

“The federal government response to this has been lacking," she said. “So I’m not standing still. I’m reaching out.”

At a new conference Friday, Raimondo said the state has received a “hugely effective" and "heartwarming” response to the plea for more supplies. She said the state is now conducting 100 to 200 tests a day for COVID-19, but “we need to get to a place where we are doing between 500 and 600 a day.”

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The state has posted an online brochure on which it lists the specific items that health professionals need with a supply donation form.

Raimondo reiterated that people with symptoms should stay home and call their doctors and not head to medical facilities for testing.

Joseph Wendelken, spokesman for the state Department of Health, said broader testing would help the state understand the scope of the situation. “But ultimately, for the vast majority of people, the course of treatment won’t change with or without a diagnosis of COVID-19,” he said.

People should take steps such as staying home, resting, and drinking fluids whether they have the flu or the coronavirus, he said.

But Wernevi, the Providence resident, said that by this point, anyone with symptoms should be able to get tested. She noted that other countries, such as South Korea and Australia, are doing a lot more testing than the United States.

On Friday, Rhode Island officials reported 54 cases of coronavirus. Test results were pending for 140 people as of Thursday, and tests had come back negative for 654 people.

But Wernevi said those numbers don’t reflect reality.

“The number of cases must be grossly underreported if the only people tested have been the ones who have already been hospitalized with acute respiratory symptoms or in a nursing home,” she said. “I just don’t see how this thing can be contained if we can’t get these basic measurements.”

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Wernevi — who has a fever, cough, and tightness in her chest — said she wants to know if she has COVID-19 so she doesn’t spread it to her family. She had planned to go for a walk this weekend with her parents, who are ages 75 and 78, but she has called that off.

Wernevi also has children ages 5 and 8, and their temperatures shot above 100 degrees on Friday.

She has heard the argument that a diagnosis shouldn’t change how people respond to symptoms. But she said people would take more extreme measures to isolate themselves if they knew they had COVID-19.

“We don’t have time to be patient,” Wernevi said. “We need to know who has it. Test everyone.”

Rhode Island needs a much clearer picture of the threat it is now facing, she said.

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” Wernevi said. "It doesn’t give me confidence that we are going to beat it back.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.