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Virginia Lawmaker Unable to Access COVID-19 Test Despite Symptoms

Lee Carter holding his desk General Assembly as people clap
Del. Lee Carter bangs on his desk to mark the opening day of the General Assembly’s 2020 session. (Craig Carper/VPM News)  

A Democratic lawmaker who came down suddenly with a fever, cough, and muscle aches earlier this month says he struggled to access COVID-19 testing.

Del. Lee Carter (D-Manassas) told VPM his calls were shuffled between five different health care agencies and private facilities on Sunday and Monday in an ultimately fruitless attempt to get tested.

Carter said he is otherwise healthy and on the mend from his illness, and there have been no reports of other lawmakers having similar symptoms. But he said the apparent lack of coordination on testing is worrying.

“Nobody seems to know who should be ordering a test, so they're playing hot potato with symptomatic people until they give up or finally find someone who knows what to do,” Carter said.

State health officials say they’re focusing their relatively limited testing capacity on people with known exposure and those with severe illness. And they say it’s up to local health care providers to screen people and administer the tests.

But Carter and health experts agree that existing tallies of infections undercount the toll of the virus and underscore the importance of social distancing.

“We are realistically now in the phase where it takes all of society responding to this,” Carter said.

“Getting the Runaround”

Carter began feeling sick earlier this month, around Monday, March 2nd. The next day, things became more intense.

“The headache was a lot worse and my muscles ached and I was coughing pretty bad,” he said.

Carter said he stayed home that day. But he felt better the next day, and went back to the Capitol for the last full week of the legislative session.

He became more concerned on Sunday, March 8th, as the General Assembly finished passing bills and the virus began spreading more rapidly in major U.S. cities.

“That's when the news started saying, ‘Hey, you know, if you have symptoms of anything, you should self-isolate,’” Carter said.

He stayed home all of last week, missing a final vote on the state budget last Thursday. His partner got sick too.

That Friday, March 13th, Carter went to a clinic inside the General Assembly. A nurse there said he probably had the flu; Carter hadn’t gotten the vaccine this year. But a few days later, he decided to seek out testing for coronavirus.

That set off a chain of calls that ultimately went nowhere.

Carter called a local urgent care facility, Prince William Medical Center, and the testing company LabCorp, which has been working with the state. He made two calls to a hotline run by the Virginia Department of Health, and another to the Prince William health district. Carter says those places either referred him to somewhere else, or just had an automated message.

“I've been getting the runaround and you know, all the public health hotlines that I've called have said, ‘You know, yeah, that's probably something that should be acted on, but we're not the ones to do it,’” he said.

Spokespersons for both parties in the House of Delegates say they haven’t heard of any lawmakers complaining of similar symptoms. But Carter said his experience suggests other people are probably also having problems getting tested, and that the virus is already much more widespread than we think.

Norman Oliver at a podium at a COVID-19 press conference
State Health Commissioner Norman Oliver speaks at a press conference on Wednesday (Ben Paviour/VPM News)

Limited Tests

State health officials say patients like Carter should seek treatment with their primary care doctors, who can screen them and decide whether to administer one of the limited number of tests available.

At a press conference on Wednesday, State Health Commissioner Norman Oliver said those tests would then be sent to the state lab, which currently has a capacity to test up to 360 patient samples a day, or to a lab run by a private company.

Dr. Oliver said Virginia had roughly 300 to 400 test kits as of Tuesday morning, with the number set to double with a new shipment that day; state officials did not respond to requests for updated numbers.

“The confusion I think sometimes is based on whether or not that primary care provider is actually in the position to take the test swab,” Oliver told reporters Wednesday. “If they are not, that's when someone should call the local health department and we can arrange for a different venue in which that person can be tested.”

A coronavirus information line offered by the Prince William health district offered scant help.

“Currently, there are no public testing sites within Prince William County,” a robotic voice said in a call on Wednesday afternoon. “Please check back for updates.”

Health departments don’t provide direct testing themselves, according to Lauren Cunningham, a spokesperson for the Office of the Secretary of Health and Human Resources, and instead are tasked with coordinating testing with local providers.

“Healthcare providers and systems are responding and putting more processes in place to manage the demand,” she wrote in an email.

Social Distancing

Health experts say testing can only go so far in managing the pandemic.

Dr. Taison Bell, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Virginia in the division of Infectious Disease, said even though there’s no treatment for COVID-19, tests are necessary for doctors in deciding who to keep isolated.

“If we knew the result of testing, it might change how we manage the patient or whether we put them in a special unit,” he said.

In an ideal world, said Bell’s colleague, Dr. Kyle Enfield, there would be tests for anyone who is experiencing symptoms of a serious respiratory infection right now. But Bell and Enfield said even that testing would have limitations.

“Even if theoretically, we have the ability to test every single American right now to find out if they are positive or negative, our advice still from public health experts, physicians, would be to practice social distancing,” Bell said.

Bell and his colleagues are getting some help to set up their own, in-house testing. He said UVA’s medical science labs have donated equipment that will help them ramp up testing and try to keep up with the fast-moving pandemic.

In the meantime, experts agree: Stay home if you can and limit your exposure.