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Having trouble getting a new coronavirus test? You're not alone

Stephanie Innes
Arizona Republic

Some Arizonans who have symptoms of the new coronavirus have found themselves on a frustrating quest to get tested.

On March 4, Chuck Harper's 11-year-old daughter developed a fever, a severe cough and shortness of breath. He wanted her tested for new coronavirus, but encountered obstacle after obstacle trying to make that happen.

If she was positive, Harper felt it important to contact his daughter's classmates and other social contacts in order to prevent any spread of the disease.

"If she has it, we need to let others know. If she has it, she was most likely contagious in her classroom," he said. "Both my kids suffer from asthma. My son had heart surgery as an infant. My wife has diabetes. If they make a sharp turn for the worse, we need to be able to know what we're dealing with."

A total of 115 Arizonans have been tested for the new coronavirus, or COVID-19, and nine people are either confirmed or presumed positive. There is no vaccine for the new coronavirus and no known effective treatment for it, either.

"The state says we have nine cases in Arizona. That is the most ridiculous statistic that I know of," said Jim Erickson, a Queen Creek resident who said his efforts to find out whether his ill wife is positive for new coronavirus were futile. "There are hundreds if not thousands of cases out there.

"Nobody knows because they won't test anybody."

Critics across the country say the United States is not making enough tests available and there is no way to gauge how many Americans have contracted the potentially deadly virus.

In Colorado on Thursday, people participating in a free, drive-through COVID-19 testing event sat in lines of cars for up to four hours to find out whether or not they are positive, the Denver Post reported.

As of Thursday, the results of 24 Arizona tests were pending. Public health officials say with two commercial labs starting to offer diagnostic tests in Arizona, the testing capacity should increase, and so should providers' familiarity with COVID-19 and testing.

This week, the Arizona Department of Health Services has been holding webinars about COVID-19 for local doctors.

The nine Arizona cases include five people from one household in Pinal County; three Maricopa County residents and one person in Pima County. Three people have been hospitalized.

The latest case in Maricopa County is a man in his 90s who is hospitalized. The other two Maricopa County cases are men in their 20s. One is recovered and the other is recovering at home.

The hospitalized Maricopa County man may have been a patient in a local rehabilitation hospital.

In a statement to The Arizona Republic, Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of East Valley says they had a "potential COVID-19 exposure from a previous patient" and that they are coordinating with the local health department and following guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

No symptoms? Sorry, no test for you

Arizona public health officials are focusing on testing people who have traveled to an affected area, who have had known contact with an infected person, and who are severely ill with a respiratory infection of no other known cause. 

"If you do not have symptoms of COVID-19 right now, you do not need to be tested," Dr. Cara Christ, the Arizona Department of Health Services director, said this week at a press conference about new coronavirus in Arizona.

"For those that might have symptoms and feel that they are at risk for contracting COVID-19, we urge you to see your personal care provider or urgent care."

Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, medical director for the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, says the most important thing to remember in mitigating the spread of illness is that sick people need to stay home.

Unless they are directed otherwise by a public health official or health care provider, people without symptoms of fever, shortness of breath or a cough do not need to self-quarantine and do not need to be tested for COVID-19, she said.

The county health department is no longer recommending quarantine for health care workers exposed to the new coronavirus who are not showing symptoms, Sunenshine said. Those health care workers are instead asked to monitor themselves daily for fever and symptoms of the illness and stay home if those symptoms develop.

'It took ... almost threatening them'

Public health officials are encouraging Arizonans to use telemedicine if they have symptoms, so that they do not risk spreading disease to others in health care waiting rooms.

An Arizona COVID-19 information hotline has been set up at 1-844-542-8201 for people with questions about the virus, including where testing is available.

Harper, a Gilbert resident who works in sales, said he was turned away from the family's pediatrician. Harper didn't give up. His daughter visited an urgent care facility and a walk-in clinic at a pharmacy. Both the urgent care facility and the pharmacy clinic told Harper his daughter should get a COVID-19 test, he said, but neither had the tests.

Harper made call after call and finally got both his children tested at his daughter's pediatrician's office a week after she first got sick. The entire family wore masks when they went into the office for the test and entered the office through a back door, he said.

A nurse from the Maricopa County Department of Public Health called the pediatrician and helped the family get tested, Harper said. The family expects to get the results by Sunday.

"We pushed and pushed and pushed. It took a lot of effort and almost threatening them," he said. "It was absurd. It's not a complicated test. It's a nose swab."

Last week, when the number of U.S. new coronavirus cases and deaths was spiking, Kathy Parker, 66, decided to make sure her local providers were ready. As a lung cancer survivor who is older than 60, Parker considers herself at high risk for contracting the respiratory illness.

"I've always been an alarmist Type A because of just different things that have happened in my life," said Parker, who recently stocked her home with two weeks' worth of food in response to the COVID-19 crisis. 

When Parker called her doctor and asked where she would need to go if she wanted a test, her doctor's office told her she would need to go to an ER.

Parker, a retired health care administrator who lives in Scottsdale, said she knew that was the wrong answer.

Emergency rooms are for people with life-threatening emergencies. And Parker knows that people with potentially contagious respiratory infections should not be crowding ERs and other waiting rooms and potentially infecting others.

She told her doctor's office that going to the ER was not an acceptable answer. Her doctor's office replied that they had run out of masks, so it wouldn't be safe for her to go in if she was potentially infected. Parker said they also told her they didn't have any tests. 

Parker called her local ER, and the ER told her to call the Arizona Department of Health Services, which told her to call her primary care physician, she said. It was an infinite loop.

"Arizona had one of the first cases (of new coronavirus) in the U.S. There are so many retirement communities here, so many older people who live here," she said. "We aren't doing much testing. They are only testing people who are really sick."

Parker did have high praise for the Department of Health Services. She's had two conversations with employees there who have been willing to listen and answer her questions.

Erickson, the Queen Creek resident, says his wife, who is in her 50s, may have been exposed to one of the five Pinal County cases of new coronavirus. When she developed a cough, fever, shortness of breath and tested negative for flu, the couple got worried.

Erickson said both an urgent care facility and his primary care doctor's office turned away his wife when the couple asked for a new coronavirus test.

He said both the doctor and urgent care told the Ericksons to go to an emergency room. The Ericksons didn't go to an ER because the situation was not life-threatening, and because they thought it would be too expensive.

Erickson said the couple went to a different urgent care that gave Erickson's wife a COVID-19 test. But he said the test was never processed. He said he was contacted by a public health official who said his wife did not meet the criteria for COVID-19 testing.

Erickson, who works in the supply chain industry, is in quarantine at home until March 23. After he told his employer that his wife might have new coronavirus, they told him to go home for 14 days. 

His wife, a contractor in the food industry who is still recovering from her illness, plans to go back to work on Monday.

Republic reporter Perry Vandell contributed to this article. 

Reach health care reporter Stephanie Innes at Stephanie.Innes@gannett.com or at 602-444-8369. Follow her on Twitter @stephanieinnes.

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