Many Who Need A Coronavirus Test Still Can't Get One, Despite Presidential Claims

Apr 2, 2020
Originally published on April 2, 2020 7:35 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There's still a serious shortage of testing for COVID-19 across the country. That is in spite of President Trump's insistence that the situation is improving. As NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, many people who are sick and showing likely symptoms say they still can't get tested.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: For the past two weeks in Lillian, Ala., Nathan Tetreault (ph) has suffered through the likely COVID-19 symptoms - dry cough, fever, waking up in the middle of the night struggling to breathe.

NATHAN TETREAULT: I don't know if I have it. However, chances are pretty darn likely.

SIEGLER: Because he didn't meet the required criteria early on, doctors wouldn't test him last week. He's not over 65 showing symptoms. He hasn't traveled outside the country or knowingly come into contact with anyone who has tested positive.

TETREAULT: The scariest thing is not getting answers, not knowing what's going to happen when you call the doctor and they're just like, yeah, you're on your own.

SIEGLER: Tetreault is feeling better. He's supposed to go back to his job at a supermarket. He says if he knew he was positive, he could ask for more time off. He's worried he could be infectious. While COVID-19 testing criteria can vary depending where you live, tests are being rationed in every state, and demand is far outstripping capacity from Alabama to Oregon.

MELISSA BURGESS: I do have a little bit of a cough still, so I apologize.

SIEGLER: In Portland, Melissa Burgess (ph), her husband and their 1 1/2-year-old son have been holed up in their small house for two weeks. She had mild symptoms. Her husband, though, got much sicker - but not bad enough to go to the ER or get a test according to their doctor. Now he is getting better.

BURGESS: And so maybe it wasn't that. And just thank God. You know? But the anxiety of that, you know, in the past few days has been pretty high.

SIEGLER: Still, Burgess isn't taking any chances. She wears the family's one mask when she cares for her husband. They're worried that if she gets sick, there will be nobody to take care of their son. Now, usually her parents help out, but they can't come over and risk getting sick themselves.

BURGESS: The point being that, like, if everyone was able to just get a test to know if they had it or not, then we could at least have comfort in knowing that, like, someone could take care of our son.

SIEGLER: People who responded to a callout on social media were frustrated that testing is still being rationed and not everyone who's showing symptoms can get one. A Colorado woman said her husband is sick, their son has leukemia, and yet their doctor said the only thing they could do for now is to isolate at home. There are signs that more testing is becoming available more widely with some caveats. Here in Idaho, Blaine County reports some of the highest rates of COVID-19 infections in the U.S. A woman there in her 30s was able to get tested. But because she wasn't that sick, her swab was sent to a commercial lab. She got the positive results 12 days later.

ABNER KING: We've never had a sufficient test capacity from the beginning of this whole ordeal.

SIEGLER: Abner King is CEO of Syringa Hospital in rural northern Idaho. Most of their tests are sent to a commercial lab in California which has its own backlog to deal with.

KING: We have a lot of people that want to get tested and that are upset when the screening criteria says, no, you don't qualify to get tested. And they'll literally go to the next hospital down the road and try there. But we're all in the same boat.

SIEGLER: King just hopes people in his community who think they might be sick are heeding the stay-at-home order. That's not of much solace to people like Michelle (ph) Burgess and her family over in Portland.

BURGESS: We don't blame the doctors for this at all. Like, they are working and so hard. I think they're in a hard position to have to tell people, no, we can't, you know, prescribe you a test right now because there aren't enough.

SIEGLER: Burgess says state health officials have tried to reassure her that the testing criteria is changing and possibly getting less stringent by the day.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Boise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.