They say that money can’t buy you everything, but extra funds and a little influence can get you to the front of the coronavirus testing line. In the midst of a severe shortage of coronavirus tests, many Americans, even those with symptoms and high at risk like the elderly have been passed up for testing, but celebrities including actors Tom Hanks and Idris Elba, and entire basketball teams, like the Brooklyn Nets and Utah Jazz, have all been screened—and rather quickly.
Some, like Hanks and Elba, tested positive, but others were assessed even when they weren’t showing symptoms. (In most places, exhibiting symptoms like fever and dry cough is a crucial requirement for getting the test, since it is in such short supply.)
How are the rich and famous able to get their hands on a test and bypass long wait times? They won’t say outright. Of the stars who revealed they received testing, none returned Vice’s request for comment about the process when reporters recently reached out. One possible avenue, however, is their access to exclusive healthcare: Before COVID-19 became a pandemic, concierge or boutique doctors—those who charge steep annual or per visit fees, not covered by insurance, of course—started stocking up on supplies.
“We tried to prepare in advance by gathering and ordering the needed testing materials as soon as possible, and placed orders with various medical supply companies,” says David Nazarian, MD, a doctor who provides one-on-one house calls to upper class patients in Beverly Hills. “We were able to get the tests.”
The price tag on these services isn’t cheap; Nazarian didn’t respond to a question about his costs, but another concierge physician in Los Angeles revealed they charge $1,500 for a house call that includes the coronavirus test. Sollis Health, a $5,000-a-year medical concierge based in New York, told Men's Health they do house calls with testing and care.
Not only are elite clients able to get tests, their results don’t take as long. Nazarian said that patients hear back in one to two days, but he’s working on getting labs back in eight hours. Other doctors that spoke with Men's Health for this story, who are part of larger hospital networks, said the wait times can be up to a week.
In Los Angeles, Dr. Marc Futernick, MD, an emergency physician, says his hospital has stopped screening most of the general public completely because the labs were so backed up. “When people come in, the only thing I can tell them is to quarantine and connect with their physician if symptoms get worse,” he says.
But you don’t even have to be a member of an exclusive health service to get the test. “Many of these people probably have connections with hospitals or private testing companies or may know the person who makes the decisions about getting these labs run, so they can get tested quicker and get results sooner,” says Dr. Ryan Stanton, MD, an emergency physician in Lexington, Kentucky, who notes that special treatment in healthcare happens all the time.
Dr. Alexis Merdjanoff, PhD, a public health sociologist who studies disasters at New York University’s School of Global Health, says that she was “unfortunately totally unsurprised” that wealthy and famous individuals got their hands on tests while shortages persist in the U.S. “Disasters and pandemics always bring to light underlying inequalities in various systems including healthcare,” she says. “But it’s hard to watch people have such easy access when there are others who may need it more.”
What feels especially unsettling about coronavirus testing disparities is the fact that many of the clientele aren’t required to meet the same stringent criteria as the average patient—instead, they are often asymptomatic. At press time, Futernick says L.A. hospitals had strict guidelines for getting tested. “Now we can only test healthcare workers, nursing home residents, and clusters of two or more presumed cases in 72 hours in congregate residences, like homeless shelters,” he says. He called the disparity of test access “not fair and not good for public health.”
It may not be surprising that the wealthy and powerful are able to bend the rules, but doctors are justifiably bothered by this. “I’d prefer them not to use our limited resources when I can’t even screen people who are high risk,” says Stanton, adding that he was only able to test two patients yesterday. Futernick agrees. “We should be using these tests where we need them. In a time when labs are struggling to keep up, we need to prioritize.”
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