On a Monday, it was just the dry cough. By Thursday, he had chills and a 102-degree fever. Michael Campbell, 61, wanted to be tested for the coronavirus.
He lives in Montgomery County, an epicenter of the outbreak in Pennsylvania, and he was nervous. That same week, he had a work meeting, picked his 20-year-old daughter up from Wagner College, and went to church. If he was sick, he wanted to be able to warn everyone.
He says he called the Montgomery County health department and officials asked if he knew anyone who had the coronavirus, if he knew where he could have gotten sick. He didn’t. He said he was instructed to self-isolate in his Glenside home. They were not going to test him.
But Campbell felt it was his right to know for certain why he was sick. Growing desperate, he drove to Wilmington to go to ChristianaCare’s drive-through testing site, where he was one of 536 people screened that day for free, no appointment or doctor’s prescription needed.
On March 17, he was notified that he tested positive for the coronavirus. Now his daughter, a coworker, and a church friend are all sick. He blames himself.
“When I got the positive result back I was almost starting to cry because I like to be part of history, but a good history, not this kind of history,” said Campbell, a mobile building maintenance technician. “I feel so bad that other people have gotten it from me."
Across the Philadelphia region, as the pandemic spreads both illness and anxiety, potentially sick people may be hopping from site to site, desperate for an answer as cases surge and testing availability proves uneven.
Dr. Tina Tan, a professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, says test-hopping has the potential to actually spread the virus, putting more people at risk.
Someone who is driving some distance to be tested will likely stop at a rest stop, to use the bathroom, get gas, or buy food. Traveling could also strain limited resources for the health-care workers in another town.
“As anxiety in the community builds about this," Tan said, “people are going to go to all different lengths to get what they want.”
Testing across the United States was slow to start and has been widely uneven, making it challenging to track the spread of the disease and contain it.
South Korea has performed more than 360,000 tests, about one for every 140 people. This aggressive testing has slowed the spread of the virus and the United States lags far behind. Experts say the nation must expand access to tests and the personal protective equipment needed to administer them.
Campbell’s experience, Tan said, is a consequence of the country’s insufficient response to the pandemic.
Montgomery County, which has been hit particularly hard in Pennsylvania, has struggled to find the resources to test its residents.
Val Arkoosh, chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, has emphasized that residents who are experiencing symptoms but not high-risk should stay home and not be tested.
“If you could just sit tight and take a deep breath, and I know it’s incredibly frustrating because any of us I think would want to know for sure," she said at a news conference. “But in this time of scarce resources, if you are able to sit tight and make a test available for someone who really needs to be tested, that is something that you’re doing for our whole community.”
But Alexander Brown, a 45-year-old software engineer in Metuchen, N.J., was worried about his community. His employer would not notify its more than 2,000-person workforce that Brown was likely sick with the coronavirus — he had a dry cough and felt feverish — unless he had a positive test result.
Brown said he called three telemedicine companies, three or four urgent care centers, and his primary care physician. He was told they were prioritizing people who were exhibiting severe symptoms.
By that time, Brown’s symptoms subsided and he didn’t want to sit in a waiting room only to be turned away.
Friends recommended doctors to call and places they heard were doing testing. He ended up driving to Physicians Urgent Care LLC in Manalapan, where he was swabbed Wednesday. He has been self-isolating at home, where he lives with his wife and two young sons.
He notified coworkers with whom he may have had contact, but wishes all employees would have been told. By the time he receives his results, it will have been more than a week since he started exhibiting symptoms.
Campbell also saw it as his responsibility to be tested, so he could let his community know if he had the virus. He was frustrated with Montgomery County’s insistence that he simply stay at home.
Montgomery County now has an appointment-only drive-through testing site, opened after Campbell made that call to the health department. The testing is reserved for people who meet criteria including a fever, coughing, and shortness of breath. It’s unclear if Campbell would receive a different response from the county now, but the experience makes him concerned about people who may have the virus without knowing it or showing up in official counts, but could infect others.
“It’s very frustrating," Campbell said. “If you think you have the slightest symptom, I think you should be able to get a test.”