How limitations in testing hurt our ability to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, a blog from Laura Deehan, CALPIRG Public Health Advocate.

It started with a dry cough. It got so bad that at one time I had to open my car door at a traffic light and vomit over the side of the door. I then began getting chills and felt thoroughly exhausted. Next, my little 11-month-old daughter got sick with a fever and a terrible cough. Soon my whole household was sick. My teenage son, who had asthma as a young kid, and my parents, who also live with us and are in their 60s, came down with it too. This raised a big red flag because they rarely get sick. Being that I was almost 6 months pregnant, I started to feel anxious about how being sick could impact the health of my baby. 

My husband works in primary care medicine as a phlebotomist and is around sick people each day. He also came down with some of the worst symptoms in my family. He started feeling sick on a Thursday, and all weekend long was fighting the illness. He had a fever, a hacking cough and generally felt miserable. 

Since my husband is a health care worker and had some evidence he may have been exposed to COVID-19 at work, he qualified for a test. In fact, he couldn’t return to work until he had a confirmed negative test result or had undergone a required two week quarantine after symptoms had subsided. He scheduled a test the following Monday in a medical office in San Francisco that was dedicated solely to COVID-19 testing. When he arrived on-time at the facility, the door was locked for precautionary purposes. He was let into the office by someone dressed in protective equipment and led to a door with his name on it. Once inside, he had his throat swabbed and underwent a rapid flu test (which came back negative). 

CDC 2019-Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Real-Time Reverse Transcriptase (RT)-PCR Diagnostic Panel

And then the long wait set in. 

While we anxiously anticipated the results, the Bay Area, and then California, issued shelter in-place orders. Schools were closed, and my teenage son, who seems to need social interaction with friends as much as he needs oxygen, was drowning in loneliness at home. He also complained of shortness of breath and was using his inhaler again for the first time in years. 

While trying to recover from this sickness, the grown ups adjusted to working from home with a baby and a teenager. Still, my dad’s symptoms got a lot worse. His fever spiked and he couldn’t get through a night without soaking through his shirt and sheets. Not only that, but he also coughed all night long. Every day we hoped my husband’s results would be in. 

While seeing reports of high volume drive through testing with rapid results in other countries, testing problems in the US persist. We still have shortages of tests and testing materials as well as lab tech time. As a result not everyone who needs a test, gets a test. And those who do get tests have long waits for the results. 

“The whole thing is badly discombobulated,” Susan Butler-Wu, an associate professor of clinical pathology at USC’s Keck School of Medicine and a director of a clinical microbiology lab in Los Angeles, recently said about testing in the Los Angeles Times. “I think 100 percent that the system is broken.” 

Certainly, Butler-Wu said, California is not alone. The failure of federal health officials to establish a coordinated, nationwide testing strategy has given rise to a similar mishmash of testing options around the country. 

“There are not enough supplies to meet the demand,” Butler-Wu added. “It’s basically every system or hospital for itself and that is not what you want for a pandemic ... You need a coordinated system that is rolled out across the state, across the county.”

The shortage of testing capacity has serious implications for health care workers and hospitals, which are facing limited resources.

“As an ER doctor trying to treat patients who may have COVID-19, I can’t underscore enough how much harder the lack of testing is making our job,” Rob Davidson, an ER doctor in western Michigan told Vox

Hospital staff have to treat every suspected case as though they are COVID-19 positive, which means wearing new protective gear for every suspected case. This is not just difficult because the gear is uncomfortable but also because it’s in increasingly limited supply. If early testing could occur to rule out those who don’t have the virus, it would cut down on the amount of equipment needlessly being used. 

That is why USPIRG is calling on Adm. Brett Giroir to implement a plan that makes sure everyone who needs a test, gets a test. This includes steps to immediately expand the number of labs, expedite processing, improve tracking as well as federal coordination of COVID-19 testing. 

As for my husband, he finally got his results this morning -- 8 days after being tested. The results: negative. I feel relief that my dad’s cough is just a symptom of a bad cold. I can exhale knowing that my son’s asthma is more likely to subside soon. And I can feel comfortable that my husband can safely get back to work. However, this negative result also means our household is  still vulnerable to COVID-19, and like millions of Americans and billions of people worldwide, we need to take every precaution to prevent getting infected by this virus. We are nowhere close to being out of the woods yet and won’t know how close we are until we ramp up testing.