Cough? Fever? Coronavirus symptoms are not enough, Americans find, as strict rules limit who gets tested

Rebecca Corey
·Writer, Reporter and Producer
·5 min read

Matt McNamara, 46, was concerned when he developed a sore throat, cough and fever last Friday.

“Those were the three things that were markers for me to say this is definitely different,” he told Yahoo News.

McNamara is a field operations manager at Spectrum and drives for Uber on weekends, so he was concerned about showing up to work sick and possibly infecting others. After going to Adirondack Urgent Care in Queensbury, N.Y., he tested negative for seasonal influenza and was told he had an unknown virus before being sent home.

But after reading that a pharmacist at a local CVS where he shops had tested positive for COVID-19, McNamara wondered why he hadn’t been tested for coronavirus himself and decided to follow up with the urgent care unit.

The frustrating response he received gives an insight into the experience of many Americans who are seeking the tests, which continue to be in limited supply despite reassurances from the Trump administration.

“They said, ‘Well, we didn’t test you because, No. 1, we don’t test for it here. You’d have to go somewhere else,’” McNamara recounted. “‘But we didn’t recommend any testing because you did not meet the CDC’s criteria of having traveled outside the country to a known nation or place that has it, and you also have not been in contact with anybody who has it.’”

Still concerned, McNamara said he followed up with the Warren County Health Services. But they also told him he did not meet the CDC’s criteria for testing.

J'nelle Oxford, public health program coordinator at Warren County Health Services, told Yahoo News, “It's still cold and virus season,” and symptoms of coronavirus alone are currently not grounds for coronavirus testing. She said they are still prioritizing those who are “high risk” and “high exposure,” including those who had been to a country with a level 2 or level 3 travel health notice or in close contact with someone who has been diagnosed with coronavirus.

The CDC defines “close contact” as being within six feet of an infected person for a prolonged period, or having direct contact with “infectious secretions” of a COVID-19 patient.

"Frequenting” the CVS where a pharmacist tested positive “does not qualify," Oxford said.

So what can you do if you think you should be tested for coronavirus?

Federal health officials insist that Americans cannot seek out a test for coronavirus on their own — contradicting a claim by President Trump that “anyone who wants a test can get a test.”

“You may not get a test unless a doctor or public health official prescribes a test,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alexander Azar said at an off-camera briefing at the White House on Saturday. “That is our medical system in the United States, in the same way that you may not get a cardiac medicine if your doctor doesn’t prescribe that.”

Before physically visiting your doctor’s office, the CDC is currently advising Americans who suspect they may have coronavirus to call their healthcare professional, “if you feel sick with fever, cough, or difficulty breathing, and have been in close contact with a person known to have COVID-19, or if you live in or have recently traveled from an area with ongoing spread of COVID-19.”

“This will help the healthcare provider’s office take steps to keep other people from getting infected or exposed,” the CDC website says.

But from there, testing for coronavirus is at the discretion of an individual’s doctor and public health officials, with the CDC advising that “decisions on which patients receive testing should be based on the local epidemiology of COVID-19 as well as the clinical course of illness.”

“Your healthcare professional will work with your state’s public health department and CDC to determine if you need to be tested for COVID-19,” the CDC website says.

The CDC has directed healthcare providers to the National Association of County and City Health Officials, which houses an online directory for local health departments across the U.S., listing the primary contact for each county health department. The website notes that these may not be the best points of contact for coronavirus-specific questions but are a good starting point.

But at present, the odds that a doctor’s visit or concerned phone call to your physician will result in a test are incredibly low. Only 6,563 Americans have been tested as of Tuesday morning, according to the CDC.

And for many Americans, the unpredictable process of determining who gets tested and who doesn’t can be frustrating. After returning from a work trip involving stops in Thailand and South Korea, Washington, D.C. native Maggie McDow wrote on Facebook that her doctor was “furious” when the Department of Health refused to run a coronavirus test after she showed respiratory symptoms, despite her travel history. Her post received over 28,000 shares.

“Do I have Covid-19? Who knows. Do we have a broken public healthcare system that is utterly failing during a health pandemic? Absolutely,” McDow wrote in her Facebook post on Saturday. Days later, McDow said she tested negative for COVID-19, and that the Department of Health had reached out to apologize for the way her case was handled.

Freelance journalist Robin Shulman wrote in the New York Times that after suspecting possible exposure at a Toronto airport immigration area, it took her three emergency room visits before she was able to get tested. Although her test ultimately came back negative, for nearly two weeks Shulman feared she could be exposing others to the disease while undiagnosed.

“Maybe I was overcautious, but the experience gave me a disturbing glimpse of New York City’s chaotic and self-contradictory approach to containing the virus,” Shulman wrote.

Since visiting Adirondack Urgent Care, McNamara says his 12-year-old son also came down with flu-like symptoms over the weekend, but that they are both recovering. McNamara told Yahoo News he doesn’t intend to keep pushing health officials to be tested for COVID-19.

“I already pursued it and put the ball in their court,” McNamara said. “But if the county called me today and said, ‘We’ve got testing available, why don’t you go to this place and get it locally,’ I would definitely do it.”

“Because I want to know.”