A colleague sent me a message in our Slack group chat: “um Coralie, not to panic you, but FYI all — Kimberly Jean-Pierre tested positive.” Carl Heastie, speaker of the New York State Assembly, had just released a statement that Jean-Pierre of Wheatley Heights tested positive for the virus. I had interviewed the 36-year-old assemblywoman in her office the week before.
The message hit me hard. Someone tested positive and I’d recently come in contact with them. Several pauses and curse words later, it was time to figure out what my next step was. What do I do? Who do I call? Where do I start? Questions I would later find have no easy answers despite what we’ve been hearing about the coronavirus pandemic.
I am sharing my story to highlight the difficulty of getting tested.
After the first cases of coronavirus in the United States became known, we first were told that there weren’t enough test kits available yet, but soon the message was that anyone who had come in contact with someone who was positive for COVID-19 could get tested. The headlines were bombarded with celebrities and athletes who were getting tested. The NBA suspended its season after a Utah Jazz player tested positive for the virus. Within a week, the entire team had been tested. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told ESPN's Rachel Nichols that eight NBA teams have been tested for the coronavirus. Four Brooklyn Nets players tested positive for the virus. Then we heard from Washington that there were plenty of test kits being distributed around the country. Based on the information that had been given to the public, I was under the impression that I would be able to get tested, too.
I first reached out to Jean-Pierre’s office to get an update on her status and information about what to do next. Her chief of staff replied to let me know that a list of everyone who had been in contact with the Assemblywoman in the past two weeks had been sent to the Department of Health who would then follow up with the next steps. I have yet to receive a follow-up call.
Now on Thursday, I had to figure out a way to find out my status. Drive in testing sites were just starting to open around the Island. That had to be the place to start. I fit the criteria. I had come in direct contact with someone who tested positive and experienced some symptoms such as shortness of breath, coughing, fatigue, and tightness in the chest over the weekend.
I started by calling the ProHEALTH hotline to schedule an appointment. The network of 30 urgent care centers had just announced that it had opened drive-thru COVID-19 testing facilities Wednesday. After a short wait, I was able to speak to a representative who asked me a few questions. Have you been in contact with someone who tested positive? Yes. Have you been showing any symptoms? Yes. Are you a PROHealth patient? No, at which point I was directed to call somewhere else as they were only seeing PROHealth patients. How do I become a patient? I asked. You have to see one of our physicians, she answered. That wasn’t going to work, I just wanted a test. Now.
So I called the New York State hotline to get an appointment for the drive-thru location in Jones Beach, but that line came up busy. Stuck in an apartment, alone, not knowing what to do, I began to panic. I started Googling, pulling together all my resources to find somewhere to get tested. Lines kept coming up busy, unable to get through. I reach out to a contact in D.C. who works on Capitol Hill, “I’m freaking out, I need to get tested.” He emails a contact in Rep. Kathleen Rice’s office: “Constituent seeking COVID-19 test.” Soon after I get a call from Rice’s director of constituent services who offers to help me find somewhere to get tested. We start calling around, he’s coming up empty.
I’m finally able to get through the state line. After holding for an hour, I get somebody on the phone who takes down my information and tells me that someone would be contacting me to schedule an appointment to get tested. Twenty-four hours later, I still haven’t received a call-back.
But I kept calling places. After searching frantically online for answers, I found the number to the Nassau County coronavirus hotline. I was finally able to reach someone. A person there directed me back to the state hotline. I inform them that I’d already called and was awaiting a callback. She then directs me to Northwell’s urgent care hotline at GoHealth. I am once again able to reach someone. They have an appointment available for 5:46 PM in Bellmore. I can get tested there she says. I let out my first sigh of relief but still worried about what the test might find. Still, I’m closer to getting an answer.
At 5:17 p.m., I get a text from GoHealth, “we’re running 45 minutes behind. We’ve updated your visit time to approximately 6:31 PM.” The instructions are pretty clear, “when you arrive to wait in your car, someone will come and get you in the parking lot and give you a mask.” I get there, the parking lot is semi-full. I call to let them know that I’m outside. They tell me to come in. I walk in, check-in, pay a $25 co-pay and go to one of the rooms.
First, I see the nurse, who checks my vitals, then it’s the physician assistant who sees me. I will have to go through a screening before finding out if I qualify to take the test. He asks me a set of questions about my health in the past week.
The verdict: Since, I don’t currently have any symptoms, I am not approved for the test.
He tells me people have been coming in and out trying to get tested, but they’re unable to test everyone. They have to ration the tests for the people who are showing symptoms. His tone of voice was comforting, trying to calm my nerves as he could clearly see on my face that I was worried.
But my breathing doesn’t sound right to him, maybe it’s the asthma I had told him about. He gives me a prescription for a new medication to help with my chronic condition. “You could have the coronavirus, but we can’t test you unless you’re showing symptoms. We can’t test everyone, we don’t have enough tests. Come back if you start showing any symptoms,” he says.
I leave without getting tested still not knowing whether I have the coronavirus.
Twenty-six hours later, I haven’t heard back from the state hotline to get an appointment or the Department of Health.
Coralie Saint-Louis is the outreach and engagement manager for nextLI, a project of Newsday Opinion.