Limited Supplies Mean Even If You Have Symptoms, You Might Not Get Tested For COVID-19

Mar 22, 2020

In Maine, as in most other parts of the country, there's a limited supply of tests for COVID-19. That's forcing health care providers to reserve testing for the most high-risk patients, under new guidelines by the state Center for Disease Control. In the meantime, some Mainers who have been tested say they are waiting days for results that were initially expected within 24 hours.

Sunday evening, 32-year old Sasha Breus of Belfast didn't feel well. She had a sore throat and just felt generally tired. At first, she thought she caught a cold from a friend.

"But I woke up on Monday morning with increasingly bad flu symptoms. From body aches, it elevated into a bit of a fever."

She called her local clinic, and was told she could come in for a test, following the protocol for potential COVID-19 patients.

What Mainers Need To Know About The Coronavirus

"So I checked in at the back of the hospital, and then I waited in my car for about two hours for the call to come in. And then it was about another half an hour to get the test."

Afterwards, Breus says, she was told she'd get her results in 24 hours.

"And I called on Tuesday evening and I was told that, 'oh yes, things are actually taking more like 48 hours.' And then when I called Wednesday evening, I was told it might be four or five days."

Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce says he has encountered the same issue trying to get the results for an inmate at the county jail who is ill.

"Well, I was told that I would know by this morning. Then I was told I would know by this afternoon. And now I'm being told one to three days. So, I guess pick a day."

As of Friday, Sasha Breus, who is isolating at home, says she still doesn't know her results.

"It's a little nerve wracking. Again, not because I'm so concerned with my own health, but face to face interaction with, wow, things really aren't going well."

This week, the Maine Center for Disease Control acknowledged as much. And it's not just with test results. State CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah says a limited national supply of lab materials, including so-called “reagents” is inhibiting the state's capacity to test.

"As the nationwide shortage of these reagents continues, our concern level rises. We've gone so far as to reach out to well known scientific groups to try to see if we can get some of these ingredients from them, so we can continue testing as uninterrupted as possible. That being said, it is a challenge right now."

And because of that challenge, Shah says the priority for testing is now given to high risk individuals.

"Those who are in the hospital, health care providers, first responders and those who live in congregate settings, as well as individuals who are older, and those with chronic conditions."

Dr. Dora Anne Mills, Chief Health Improvement Officer for MaineHealth says the goal of this prioritized testing is to identify people whose treatment would change if they tested positive for COVID-19.

"I get it, if I were sick I would want to know if I had COVID-19. But I know I don't need to know. Because I'm going to be treated the same. I would be staying home home and taking self-care as if I had the flu or some other respiratory infection."

And just as health care providers have had to prioritize who is tested, Mills says labs also have to prioritize which samples to process for results. "Ya know, triage the samples that they have from patients for whom the doctors would make a very different decision on their care, and the care of the people around them."

"This is what we have to do to protect our community and make sure we all stay safe,” says Dr. James Jarvis of Northern Light Health.

Jarvis announced Friday that the health system would restrict testing to high-risk individuals. It's unavoidable given the situation, he says, but far from ideal because Maine likely won't get an accurate picture of how far the coronavirus actually spreads.

"That is a concern, and the reason why we were testing more readily up until today was for that exact reason. From an epidemiologic standpoint, we need to know how many people are infected so we can kind of predict where we're going. Unfortunately, we just don't have that opportunity now."

As of Friday, the Maine CDC had recorded 56 cases of COVID-19 across seven counties.

Originally published 6:00 p.m. March 20, 2020.