On March 11, the day after Governor Cooper declared North Carolina a state of emergency, 21-year-old N.C. State student Audrey Roh flew from Raleigh to New York City to visit with friends for spring break.
She returned on March 16, the day before Cooper shut down the state’s bars and restaurants, feeling tired and sick, and soon developed a fever and cough. Thinking she might have been exposed to the coronavirus, she made an appointment at N.C. State’s student health center. When Roh went in, she says, she tested negative for the flu—a prerequisite for a COVID-19 test.
But after waiting for more than an hour, Roh says, she was told that she didn’t qualify for a COVID-19 test. The reason: She’d taken a fever reducer before going to the health center, and the center required proof that her fever was as severe as she said it was.
Several days later, one of her friends in NYC tested positive for COVID-19. Roh says the health center told her she could come back, but she’s already started feeling better; her fever has broken. She’ll probably never get tested. She’ll never know whether she had the coronavirus.
These stories aren’t uncommon. By now, the Trump administration’s failure to make tests widely available, even as President Trump falsely assured Americans that anyone who wanted a test could get one, has been well-documented. What’s less documented is how many people tried to get tested but were turned away. As The Washington Post reported on March 12, “The number of medical professionals and patients who are denied access to tests is not tracked nationally.”
That sentence jumped out at Charles Mangin, who works for Oracle in downtown Durham.
“Nobody is tracking people who present with symptoms and don’t get a test,” he says. “The numbers you see on the news, they’re only based on people who have had access to a test.”
Last Tuesday, he took about a half-hour and set up covidtest.me. The website is simple—it’s just a Google doc. It’s less quantitative than qualitative; it doesn’t track people who couldn’t get tests so much as allow them to self-report their stories. Mangin stores the data privately, telling those who submit that he’ll only provide it to journalists and medical researchers.
As of Friday, 125 people had reported their symptoms. (Mangin also posted the link to his site in a Reddit thread, which garnered hundreds of comments sharing similar stories.)
One of them, a 31-year-old in Illinois, wrote: “Called my state’s COVID-19 hotline. They told me my symptoms and spouse’s recent association with people who have traveled warranted me getting a test, and I should go to the ER. Called ER ahead of time, and they told me they could not test me because they do not have any tests.”
Another, from Ohio: “Go to the doctor after booking an appointment for mild coughing/fever/aching, etc. There’s a sign on the door that says, ‘If you’re coughing OR have a fever OR shortness of breath, don’t come in EVEN if you have an appointment.’ So I call them and she’s like, ‘You cannot come in here with your symptoms. You have to go to the ER for a COVID-19 test.’ So I call the ER and THEY tell me that I have to pay full ER prices if I don’t have a PRESCRIPTION for a test. Which my doctor won’t give me because she won’t see me. And now we’re in a situation where Ohioans have to pay full ER prices for a coronavirus test.”
Later, the submitter provided an update: “I called my doctor to ask if they could just send over a script. They’re not sure what to do. Said they would call me back, which was now over an hour ago.” And then another: “Doctor called. Said, ‘There’s no script for the test, so just stay home.’ Which means the ER is asking for scripts that don’t exist.”
“I haven’t read through them all,” Mangin says. “I thumbed through. It really is people who can legitimately fit into the category of, ‘I was in contact with someone who was really sick now. I was on a plane in Italy. I was on a cruise ship. Either I was in contact with somebody, or I’m sick and in contact with somebody, and I don’t want to get sick.”
On March 13, President Trump belatedly declared a national state of emergency and announced a series of steps to boost the availability of public testing in the U.S. As of Monday, while the U.S. has begun producing more tests, testing is not nearly as available as public experts believe is necessary—there are still not enough testing kits, protective gear for medical personnel, swabs for sampling, reagents to extract genetic material, or even humans to do the work. Per capita, the U.S. has tested 30 times fewer people than has South Korea.
And because the U.S. is so far behind in testing, it’s likely we’ll know how many people actually had COVID-19—or how many people died from it. As of Monday, the U.S. had at least 41,000 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus.
The real number, Harvard epidemiology professor Marc Lipsitch wrote in The Washington Post on Monday, is likely 10 times higher.
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