Coronavirus Testing Is Still Limited: Even If You're Sick, You May Not Get a Test

The U.S. is still lacking in test kits, and people are getting turned away even if they are already sick

For people experiencing fevers, chills, coughing, sneezing and breathing problems right now, the first thought would be to get tested for the coronavirus. But it’s not as simple as heading to the doctor and asking for a test.

The current Centers for Disease Control guidelines say that people who think they should be tested can go to their doctor, who will then determine if their symptoms warrant a test. But even then, it’s not that simple, and Americans say they’re being turned away, largely due to a lack of testing kits.

Though President Donald Trump has said that any American who “needs a test gets a test,” that has not yet been the case. The CDC told lawmakers that they have tested around 3,800 people, and outside laboratories have tested an additional 7,800 — 11,600 is just a tiny fraction of the U.S. population. As of Thursday, at least 1,289 people have tested positive, and 37 have died.

The lack of available testing kits spurs from a manufacturing problem with the first batch of kits, made by the CDC. Correcting that error delayed production, and the CDC has only recently started sending the new versions out to states.

Additionally, the CDC restricted private health companies and academic institutions from creating their own kits without approval from the Food and Drug Administration until Feb. 29. While many, including Kaiser Permanente, are now beginning production, their kits will come after the virus has spread across the country.

The messaging about testing has significantly differed within the Trump administration. While Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Monday that over 1 million tests “are now out,” NPR reported, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that the U.S. is “failing” in their capacity to test for coronavirus.

“The system is not really geared to what we need right now — what you are asking for,” Fauci, told House lawmakers during hearings on Thursday morning. “The idea of anybody getting it easily the way people in other countries are doing it, we’re not set up for that. Do I think we should be? Yes. But we’re not.”

“That is a failing. It is a failing. Let’s admit it,” he said.

The U.S.’s current testing situation strongly contrasts with other countries. In South Korea, health agencies set up drive-thru testing that is free to anyone, and they are testing almost 20,000 people a day. They have the fourth-most coronavirus cases of any country, with 7,869, but one of the lowest death rates, with 66 deaths.

Many Americans have reported extreme difficulty in getting tested. On March 5, a nurse in northern California said that she was refused a test despite caring for a coronavirus patient and showing symptoms. Though her doctor and local health officials agreed that she should get tested, the CDC reportedly disagreed.

“They said they would not test me because if I were wearing the recommended protective equipment, then I wouldn’t have the coronavirus,” the nurse wrote in an open letter shared by National Nurses United. The nurse said that the CDC later recanted, and said she could be tested but other possible patients would be prioritized over her.

Others have shared their struggles in getting approved for testing on social media. One Twitter user said in a thread that went viral that she works in a physical therapy unit with patients over 65, has a history of chronic bronchitis, and started exhibiting coronavirus symptoms. But when she tried to get tested, the CDC said she didn’t qualify for testing.

“The only way I can get treated is if my symptoms get so bad I develop pneumonia or bronchitis, which is very likely in my case,” she said. “Then I’ll be in the ER and quarantined for several days while waiting for a test and for the results to come back.”

There is also concern that people will avoid getting tested due to the cost, which is expected to be around $200. Several private insurance companies have said that they will waive co-pays for testing and those on Medicare or Medicaid will also get tested for free, but that leaves uninsured Americans. During the congressional hearings on Thursday, House Democrats pushed CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield to promise free testing to all Americans, which he agreed to after pressure from California Rep. Katie Porter.

“I think you’re an excellent questioner so my answer is yes,” he said.

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