Catch-22 on coronavirus tests

US limited in its capacity to confirm the disease

IT’S A HARROWING STORY. You have most of the symptoms of coronavirus. You’ve self-quarantined at home for two weeks. You’re not getting any better. But the local hospital can’t test you for the disease until you’re in intensive care.

This is what Boston microbiologist Amy Proal described Monday night on Twitter as she posted about her two-week long struggle with her boyfriend, who also has symptoms of the respiratory illness. Her boyfriend went to see a doctor without a mask. After waiting with other patients who were worried they had the virus, he was told he can’t be tested because he hasn’t been in direct contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

“Instead of going directly home, they gave him a script for an inhaler and told him to go to CVS. The situation is ridiculous. Why did his internist’s office have someone with COVID19 symptoms come in, not test him, and then send him to a crowded pharmacy? I am very angry,” Proal tweeted.

Proal’s story illustrates how difficult it can be for someone who thinks they might be infected to be tested to know for sure.

When the virus initially hit the US, federal health officials restricted testing to the point that even those who had returned from countries with serious outbreaks could not get tested unless they were hospitalized. The president has incorrectly suggested anyone can get a test with a physician’s permission. The situation was also bungled in February when the Centers for Disease Control sent out flawed test kits to states.

The US is performing five coronavirus tests per million people, compared to 347 in the United Kingdom, 826 in Italy, and 2,692 in South Korea. The Atlantic reported that, as of Monday at 4 p.m., it could verify that only 4,384 people nationwide had  been tested for the coronavirus. “The United States remains dangerously limited in its capacity to test people for the illness,” the magazine reported.

Last week, Dr. Larry Madoff of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health told lawmakers at a public health hearing that the state has “overcome” obstacles about rolling out testing at the state laboratory. Federal criteria for testing had broadened by last Friday, giving doctors more discretion in ordering tests. Madoff said the combination of more test kits and more flexibility in ordering tests should increase the amount of testing being done.

“Right now, the biggest resource constraint that we have is the ability to do widespread diagnostics,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, told WBUR last week. More diagnostic tests are needed immediately — or rather “yesterday,” she said.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

The number of coronavirus cases in Massachusetts hit 41 on Monday, according to new Department of Public Health figures that also show four of those people have been hospitalized for their symptoms. The majority were related to a Biogen employee conference held in Boston in February.

For Proal, there is some hope. Tim Allen, chief operating officer for LifeHope Labs in Atlanta, saw her tweet thread and offered to send her a coronavirus test kit on Twitter. The laboratory has developed a Centers for Disease Control-approved method of testing. Processing can be done in under four hours, resulting in hundreds of kits being tested a day. As of a few days ago the lab said it was working on final numbers for the price of the kit, but they’re estimating it will cost less than $250.