The question of who can get tested for COVID-19 has centered on persistent issues of inequality in access to health care. Every day, celebrities and professional athletes share their diagnoses as reports continue of delays for nearly everyone else.
I’m not rich or famous. I wasn’t even symptomatic. But I was able to get tested.
I am one of more than 1,000 people who attended a journalism conference in New Orleans two weeks ago. A few days later, the host organization announced that an attendee had tested positive for COVID-19. Everyone from ProPublica who had gone to the conference was ordered to work from home for two weeks.
After the conference, my colleagues traded stories about trying to get tested, at the same time thousands of other people around the country faced similar experiences. My co-workers described a long, confusing process that ended with a no: They did not qualify to get tested, even though they had likely been in the same room as the person who had tested positive.
My first morning of remote work, I woke up with a tickle in my throat and, more worrisome, tightness in my chest. I regretted that I had returned to the office before I knew I may have been exposed to the virus. So I decided to try to get tested. The results would either serve as a warning to the people around me or, if it turned out negative, provide them some relief.
I found a number on the Illinois Department of Public Health’s coronavirus webpage and called. The operator asked if I’d come into direct contact with the person who tested positive. I said no. After reassuring me that my exposure seemed “pretty tertiary,” she took my number and told me to call the Chicago hotline instead.
The operator who answered the Chicago hotline asked if I’d spoken to a doctor yet. I didn’t have a doctor because I had recently moved here, so she suggested I go to the county’s Stroger Hospital, where someone could evaluate me. Even if I went to the hospital, she said, I would still need a doctor there to call the city hotline to refer me for testing.
I echoed the steps: See a doctor. Your doctor will judge if you’re a candidate for testing. Then your doctor will call the hotline and set it up. She confirmed: “You can’t just walk in.”
I found a doctor online, picking more or less at random from the four within walking distance who took my insurance: a specialist in sports medicine. The earliest available appointment was the next day. I wrote in the comment box that I was hoping to get a referral for a coronavirus test.
An hour later, the doctor’s receptionist called to move up my appointment. I could come in that afternoon. When I got to the clinic, a big bottle of sanitizer waited outside the door. I gave myself two pumps and walked in. An hour later, I had been tested and was on my way home.
The experience did not resemble what I’d heard from news reports or people I knew in other states. Importantly, it seemed to contradict what I’d heard on the public hotline.
To my surprise, a nurse brought me into an evaluation room right away and explained that the test could be done on-site, if the doctor decided I was a candidate for it. There was no need to go anywhere else.
When the doctor came in, she told me I wasn’t a high-risk patient. My symptoms — a slight sore throat and tightness in my chest — weren’t consistent with the virus, and I had no chronic illnesses. I was already self-isolating; if I had the virus, care would simply mean managing my symptoms. “I don’t want to say it’s up to you” to get the test, she said, but her tone suggested that it was.
I asked if testing kits were in short supply and if using one would consume resources that would otherwise go to someone more in need. She said no — even a negative result would be helpful information for her. I said I’d like to get tested if it made no difference to her. She agreed and ordered a strep and flu test, too.
The doctor left, and another nurse came in with three instruments. “This is for corona,” she said, holding one of them up and explaining that she’d be using it to swab the back of my throat. Another one of the throat swabs was for strep, she said; the flu test would go up my nose.
Soon, I was again sitting alone in the evaluation room, surprised by my good fortune but uncertain why I’d been tested when I knew other people who may have been exposed at the conference were not.
A knock came, and the testing nurse walked back in. Negative for strep and flu, but I’d have to wait till Saturday for the coronavirus. I was free to go.
I’d get a bill in the mail.
For the next few days, friends, family and co-workers repeatedly asked about my results. But I didn’t hear anything from the doctor. The following Monday, nearly a week after my appointment, I called the clinic. The test takes three to five business days, I was told, and I was still within that range.
The next day, I called again. The receptionist told me I had tested negative. That was that.
Was the office getting a lot of requests for the test? I asked. The receptionist said yes but repeated what the woman on the Chicago hotline had first told me: Not just anyone can get tested.
With news this week that another attendee at the conference had tested positive for the virus, conversations started up again on Twitter and on email lists about who had managed to get tested and who hadn’t. “I still can’t believe you were able to get a test,” another attendee told me.
It seems arbitrary to me, too.