As of Thursday morning (March 12), New Hampshire public health officials had tested 100 people for the coronavirus disease, COVID-19. Tests for 21 other people were pending.
Exactly who gets tested in New Hampshire is driven by CDC guidelines meant to preserve a limited testing supply for those who are most at risk of having been infected.
But the current process is leaving a lot of sick New Hampshire residents frustrated and their medical providers confused.
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About three weeks ago Brieghan Gardner came down with a fever and a cough.
“The cough got really really bad especially at night to the point where I was struggling to get enough oxygen and couldn’t sleep at all,” said Gardner in a phone interview.
Gardner went to an urgent care clinic where says she was tested for the flu and whooping cough. Both tests came back negative.
Gardner had been following the news of the coronavirus closely and recognized that her symptoms matched. She asked if the urgent care clinic would test her for the coronavirus disease, COVID-19.
She says they said no.
“I asked her why they wouldn’t test me and she said that my symptoms were not a match and I asked her to tell me in what way my symptoms were not a match. And she couldn’t come up with anything,” said Gardner.
“So I kept pressing and she said ‘the problem is nobody has access to any tests.’ I’m pretty sure those were her exact words.”
At the time, in late February, the only way the state could test for COVID-19, was to send a sample off to the CDC in Atlanta.
Gardner says she spoke with a state public health nurse who told her she didn’t qualify for a test because she had no recent travel history and hadn’t come into contact with a known case of COVID-19.
The state has set those guidelines to save the limited supply of tests for those who are most at risk of having been infected.
The state can now do its own COVID-19 tests in-house. But as of Wednesday (March 11) the state said it only had the capacity to test 250 people.
Since her trip to the urgent care clinic, Gardner has been self-quarantining and is now feeling somewhat better. But she’s concerned that she never got an answer as to whether she had COVID-19.
“I’m pretty concerned that I don’t have a diagnosis and therefore can’t alert others that I might have spread it to, like people that I work with and people that I saw when I had symptoms but still didn’t realize how serious it was.”
Kathy Farland of Bedford knows the feeling. She’s concerned about her adult daughter.
“My daughter hasn’t been feeling well. She just came back from a trip to the Dominican on Saturday,” said Farland when reached by phone.
The CDC lists the Dominican Republic as one of the many countries with sustained community transmission of COVID-19.
Farland says her daughter followed CDC guidelines by calling her doctor before going in.
The doctor told her to call the state health department. When she did, Farland says the state then told her daughter to go see her doctor. But when her daughter arrived at the doctor’s office, Farland said, “They told her flat out, they were like, ‘We don’t know what to do with you. They weren’t supposed to send you back to the doctor’s office.’”
Farland said she was texting with her daughter as she waited more than three hours in an exam room while doctors tried to get guidance from the state.
Rather than enter the room to talk to her, Farland says doctors communicated with her daughter by speaking through the door and by calling her cellphone from inside the building.
“Her appointment was at 1:30 and they finally let her go at quarter of 5:00,” said Farland.
Ultimately, Farland says the state decided against testing her daughter for COVID-19. Her daughter’s symptoms: a bad sore throat with a cough but no fever, don’t quite match what’s known about COVID-19.
The experience drained Farland of any confidence she had in the state’s ability to respond to the coronavirus.
“I was listening to an interview on NHPR [Wednesday] morning. You guys had Governor Sununu on and he was talking about how all the plans were in place and everything was all set,” said Farland, “and here my daughter is and she does what she’s supposed to do and they don’t have a clue what they’re supposed to do with her.”
Meanwhile, state officials have been pointing to commercial COVID-19 testing kits as part of a solution to the bottle-neck on testing in the state. National private testing companies Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp are already offering COVID-19 tests to healthcare providers nationwide.
But it’s unclear if that is having an impact in New Hampshire yet.
When reached by phone Thursday night, a spokesperson for Catholic Medical Center in Manchester said they weren’t aware they could order any commercial COVID-19 tests without state permission.