Even health care workers struggle to get tested for coronavirus

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Members of the Army and Air National Guard register people at a COVID-19 mobile testing center in New York Mar. 14, 2020. Credit: The National Guard (CC BY 2.0).

LA County released new guidelines this week for who can get tested for COVID-19. It includes people who are 65 or older, have underlying chronic health conditions, or are quarantined after exposure to a confirmed COVID-19 case.

It’s the latest in the battle to get tested for the virus. But as it turns out, even a medical professional can struggle to get checked out. 

On today’s Daily Dose, Dr. Michael Wilkes, professor of medicine and global health at UC Davis, tells us how he and his wife tried getting tested for COVID-19. 

His wife is a health care worker too. She developed the traditional symptoms of COVID-19: fever, dry cough, and aches. She also had new symptoms, including anosmia (loss of smell and taste).

“She decided that she needed to be tested. We both agreed, and spent an hour and 15 minutes yesterday on the phone going through three layers of denials,” says Wilkes. “First a triage nurse, then a family physician, and finally supervising physician -- who I spent most of the time on the phone arguing with. …  He was trying to explain to me that we wouldn't do anything differently with her. And I certainly agreed that it wasn't about her. It was about public health.” 

What does the test involve? 

Wilkes: “ It does not involve growing anything. It doesn't take a lot of time. And we're seeing tests come back 10 days after they're done. That means that if it's a health care provider [who is tested], that health care provider needs to be out of work for 10 days. We're having huge [staffing] shortages in clinics and hospitals because people are out for long periods of time.” 

What happens if medical professionals get COVID-19?

Wilkes says that if they get infected with COVID-19, it’ll be important to know for future cases of medical care. 

“Those people [will] have a heightened level of immunity. They're not going to be able to get that infection again. We're soon going to begin to develop a cadre of healthcare workers that can be working in higher-risk areas because they've gotten the infection, and hopefully they've resolved their symptoms and are now healed. Their human bodies have antibodies that will protect them,” he says.

Do we know why it’s still so hard to get tested? 

“We don't. I've spent a lot of time on the phone talking to people in Washington [D.C], in Atlanta, and around the state of California. I have no clue why these delays are happening. I know that we were short on tests, but Los Angeles seems to have resolved this in the past couple of days with the purchase of large numbers of tests from South Korea.

… But South Korea and Italy and China have been testing for weeks -- hundreds of thousands of people. [In the U.S.], we have about 70,000  people who have been tested. Twenty-five thousand tests have been done in the state of California. That's an embarrassment and it's a public health disaster.”