Low testing capacity frustrates RI patients worried about coronavirus

Coronavirus

BURRILLVILLE, R.I. (WPRI) — Mark McKay was working as a truck driver on Friday when the symptoms started.

Chest congestion, cough, fatigue.

McKay parked his truck and leaned his seat back to rest, but quickly found it difficult to breathe.

“I called my boss, let him know what was going on,” McKay said. “He met me out there with a bottle of disinfectant and asked me to clean the truck and then I went home.”

McKay’s doctor told him to go to the hospital, which he did, calling ahead to Landmark Medical Center in Woonsocket before going in. After testing negative for the flu and finding no other issues like pneumonia in a chest X-ray, McKay said he was diagnosed with a viral upper respiratory infection and told to call the R.I. Department of Health to get a test for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

“They said, ‘We’re not going to be able to test you here. We have a limited number of tests,'” McKay recalled.

McKay said he knew he wasn’t high priority because he has not traveled internationally recently, nor did he have contact with a known positive case. But state officials say community spread is happening. And McKay is 60, in the age group considered to be at a higher risk for the illness.

He called the Department of Health hotline to see if he could get a test, and says he spoke to a staff member who told him to call his doctor. His doctor, in turn, told him he needed to get the test from the Department of Health.

“I started to get kind of aggravated at this point,” McKay said of the Department of Health phone call. “Are you even listening to what I’m saying? I did call my doctor, my doctor told me to go to the hospital, I called the hospital, the hospital told me to go there, and both of them told me to call you. Now you’re telling me to call my doctor?”

Asked about the confusion at Tuesday’s daily briefing from state officials, Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said the department is still working on giving medical providers the ability to order tests at their discretion.

“We do not want it to be something that is held up by the Rhode Island Department of Health,” Alexander-Scott said. “We still have some time to get there, though.”

She recommended that people with symptoms similar to a cold or flu who cannot get a test should assume they have COVID-19, and should self-isolate at home if symptoms are not severe.

“The numbers that they’ve been giving out every day … to me those are garbage numbers,” McKay said. “Those are just new cases that they know about.”

Alexander-Scott said the state health lab is capable of testing up to 200 people a day, though Department of Health numbers show they have not been hitting that target on a daily basis.

Private labs have also started being able to run the tests, a promising sign that the numbers will increase. Gov. Gina Raimondo said she wants the state to be able to run up to 800 tests a day by next week, which could help officials decide when they can scale back preventive shutdowns.

As of Tuesday, the Department of Health said 124 Rhode Islanders had tested positive for COVID-19 since March 1. The State Health Laboratories had negative test results for 1,143 residents and was awaiting results for 196 more, while private labs have not provided the latter two figures.

“Every state is vying for the resources,” Raimondo said. “It’s a challenge.” She said the state is working to get all of the supplies needed for testing — swabs, kits, testing machines — in order to do more tests per day.

She said more testing is “absolutely vital” before businesses can start reopening.

McKay, for now, is staying home and isolated as he waits to see if he can get a test. But he wants a diagnosis so he knows if and when he can see other people or go back to work once he feels better.

“At what point is it going to be safe for me to hold my grandson again?” McKay said. “Or go to work with coworkers, and people that I see when I make deliveries?”

Alexander-Scott said Tuesday that people who test positive are not currently being re-tested, because of limited supplies. She said if a person is fever-free for three days — without medication — and at least seven days have passed since symptoms began, they can be considered negative.

But McKay wants more assurance than that before he is willing to leave isolation.

“If the whole idea is to tamp the spread down, how can you do that if you don’t know?” he said. “And if it’s gone?”

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

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