As a digital editor for WUFT, I was well aware of the shortage of tests for COVID-19. I just didn’t think I would need to seek one out for myself.
The first time I sputtered a dry cough last weekend — another lifetime, a different world — my husband and I made coronavirus jokes with the kind of poor taste that’s given a pass between spouses, letting out fear and tension with a laugh.
But I made the decision to self isolate and work from home — just in case.
Over the next couple days, I noticed my throat was sometimes sore. I coughed once or twice a day. It made me nervous, but I was too embarrassed to bring it up to anyone else. I’ve always feared being seen as dramatic. My Welsh father used to say, “Oh, you’re fine,” whenever I was sick. Keep calm and carry on. Stiff upper lip.
But Wednesday morning, I discovered it was uncomfortable to breathe. It felt like something was caught in my throat or lungs. The dry cough was suddenly frequent. It was painful to hold my breath. I had no appetite.
It didn’t feel like anything I’d experienced. I haven’t had asthma since childhood. I don’t smoke. It didn’t feel like a cold or flu. It matched the coronavirus symptoms in our news coverage.
I was embarrassed to ask for testing only for it to come back negative, but I had read too much about the virus and cared too much about my community not to.
I had no idea where to start. How do you get tested?
My supervisor recommended I contact the Alachua County Department of Health first. To my surprise, someone picked up right away. I told her my symptoms.
She told me to contact other places — my primary care physician, urgent care or emergency care centers, UF Health clinics — because the DOH had too many people needing testing to accommodate. If I called everywhere and nobody could help, I could call the COVID-19 hotline as a last resort. She wished me luck.
I called my primary care physician and described my symptoms to the receptionist. She placed me on hold.
“I have bad news,” she said when she returned. She said because I hadn’t been in since 2016, I technically wasn’t their patient anymore, and they were unable to give me medical advice.
“I’m really sorry,” she said. “I hope you feel better.”
My stiff upper lip crumbled without my permission, and I tried my best to make it seem like I wasn’t crying when I thanked her.
I didn’t know primary care physicians worked that way. I didn’t know I could be dropped as a patient for being healthy and not needing to come in every year. It jolted me; I felt alone. I would have to advocate for myself.
It was something I hadn’t known to be afraid of — to not be able to breathe comfortably, and not know where to get care.
I took a forceful breath, wiped the tears off, and steeled myself.
I called an urgent care center that the DOH had recommended.
The woman on the phone told me I didn’t meet the criteria for testing — I hadn’t traveled recently, hadn’t had contact with a known positive case, and I wasn’t running a fever. She said they could test me for other things, like the flu or a cold. Finally, she added that if the physician thought it was warranted, they could test me for COVID-19.
Her tone was so discouraging of coming in that I debated whether to just self-quarantine without testing, but I went that afternoon.
The door was covered in signs that said “STOP!” and barred entry to those who were running a fever and had recently traveled to Italy or China or Iran or had contact with a known positive. I hesitated. If the goal was to keep out people who might have coronavirus, shouldn’t I stay out? But I didn’t feel I had a choice.
When I described my symptoms, the receptionist immediately handed me a mask. The waiting room was surprisingly empty except for a man with an injured foot who eyed me warily when I coughed. The receptionist came out and wiped down the door handle and all the chairs. The nurse who showed me back would not come close enough to read my weight on the scale.
When the doctor came in, he ran through the list of questions I had answered so many times that day — no, I hadn’t traveled, no fever, no contact with a known positive. Just this cough and sudden difficulty breathing.
He checked my lungs while I tried to take deep breaths but could only cough.
His eyebrows knit together and he sighed. He said he’d be honest with me — if they had enough tests, he’d be testing anyone with symptoms. They had been promised a big delivery of tests for over a week but it hadn’t come. For now, they had a box of 50 that had been delivered the day before and they had already used half of them. He had to be judicious. He couldn’t use it on someone who hadn’t had contact with a known positive.
The situation is changing every day, he said. More tests could come in tomorrow, who knows? And maybe then he could test someone like me.
He looked down at his knees. “It’s stressful,” he said.
Because I did have contact with others who had had contact with a known positive, he wrote my name down and told me to call him immediately if my symptoms worsened. He told me to drink lots of fluids and take a cough suppressant. He seemed troubled when he showed me the exit.
After I left, extreme physical fatigue and a slight migraine set in. Despite not having eaten, I still didn’t want any food. My temperature rose to 99 degrees. This worried me — other accounts I’d read of positive cases included a slowly and steadily rising temperature — but the CDC’s threshold for a fever is 100.4 degrees. Technically, I still didn’t qualify for testing.
Thankfully, two days later, I woke up fully recovered — I think. I don’t know, and likely won’t ever know, if I was positive for coronavirus.
I’ve been taking deep, full breaths since then because I don’t take them for granted anymore. And I’m still keeping my distance.
This is what concerns me: How would we know if there was community transmission if we don’t test people who haven’t had contact with a known positive?
How can we do anything to curb this pandemic if we don’t even have enough tests?
On Thursday, China reported no new positive cases for the first time since December. But this is only after weeks of temperature checks at the entrances to buildings, widespread testing and aggressive quarantine measures.
Gov. DeSantis promised more accessible and immediate testing to be available soon. I hope it’s on the scale we need. I hope someone with symptoms won’t need to call three different places and walk into an urgent care. I hope they won’t need to worry about being seen as paranoid. I hope they can drive up, get tested outside, and get fast results.
A global pandemic reveals what has always been true: We are only as strong as our most vulnerable. Our wellbeing is directly dependent on the wellbeing of our neighbor and the care they are given.
Now is not a time to keep calm and carry on. It’s a time to stop and give the situation the gravity it deserves, to reassess a healthcare system that requires people to fight for care and leaves many behind.
Until then, we need to keep social distancing. And be prepared to advocate for ourselves.