For nearly three weeks, he suffered alone in his Fishtown condo. Perpetually winded, he struggled to walk across the room or even empty the dishwasher.
“I’ve never had anything go after my lungs like this,” said David, a man in his 30s who asked The Inquirer not to use his last name so as not to frighten his neighborhood.
David had symptoms of the coronavirus, and a weakened immune system due to medication for arthritis, but struggled to get tested because he didn’t have a car to get to any of the region’s testing sites.
To make matters worse, he said, no health officials or doctors seemed to know exactly what he should do. One suggested he take an Uber as long as he wore a mask. He didn’t own a mask, and said he wouldn’t feel comfortable putting a driver at risk, even with one.
In South Philadelphia, Karissa Justice, 28, also doesn’t have a car. Last month, when cough and flulike symptoms turned into severe shortness of breath, her doctor told her to call an ambulance. At Jefferson Hospital, she learned she hadn’t developed pneumonia, she said, so she was tested for the coronavirus and discharged. No one there seemed to know how she should get home without a car, she said, but they urged her to avoid close contact with people.
So Justice walked 2½ miles. She is used to walking seven to 10 miles a day to commute to work, she said, but her trek took hours with frequent stops to catch her breath.
“For our city, we know we have a lot of people without cars here,” she said. “At this point, I feel like we should have a better answer."
Philadelphia is known as one of the nation’s most walkable cities. While the number of cars and the percentage of households with cars have grown recently, about 30% of residences do not have a vehicle. That’s much higher than other metro areas such as Houston, where about 8% of households are carless, and Los Angeles, where that number is around 12%.
For people without cars in Philadelphia, it can be an anxiety-ridden ordeal to figure out how to get tested, particularly at sites that primarily do drive-through testing by appointment.
Should I get on the subway or bus and risk infecting others? Would an Uber or Lyft driver even take me to a testing site? How can I call a friend or relative or neighbor and ask to borrow their car, possibly exposing them to the virus?
City officials and medical professionals don’t have a clear answer.
Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said a number of walk-in test sites are available at medical facilities and a new city-run site at an undisclosed location in Center City (health-care workers and people over age 50 with symptoms can make appointments by calling 267-491-5870). Across the river in Camden, people walked up to a new testing site at Cooper’s Poynt Park on Wednesday.
Farley suggested that people call their primary care doctors to learn how to be tested. “The vast majority of those ... you don’t need to drive in,” he said.
But that doesn’t answer the question of how you should get there.
Spokespeople for Jefferson Health, Tower Health, and Penn Medicine were either unable to answer questions about transportation or did not return requests for comment.
Dr. Esther Chernak, the director of the Center for Public Health Readiness and Communication at Drexel University, said that generally people who are sick should wear a mask if they must leave their homes, but deferred to officials regarding transportation concerns, as did a Main Line Health spokesperson.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised people who believe they have the coronavirus to stay home except to get medical care and also to avoid public transportation, including ride-sharing services and taxis. Like Philadelphia, cities that have a sizable carless population reiterate the CDC’s guidelines as their own best practices.
SEPTA, however, said it is still here to be of service — and that includes helping people get to coronavirus testing sites when they don’t have another option.
“One of the main reasons SEPTA is working to preserve core services is to ensure residents have access to essential services such as medical care," spokesperson Andrew Busch said in a statement. “If someone is traveling to a test site, we ask that they make sure to practice social distancing, and cover up coughs and sneezes.”
SEPTA has also taken its own measures. The transit service implemented rear-door boarding, suspended onboard fare payment, and adjusted rider limits to increase social distancing. These changes came after the union representing thousands of SEPTA workers raised safety concerns, and after SEPTA had already reduced service of buses, subways, trolleys, Regional Rail, and the Norristown High Speed Line.
People who have been diagnosed with the coronavirus or suspect they have it should not call a ride-sharing service, a Lyft spokesperson said in a statement, and instead “work with a medical professional to discuss transportation options.”
But given the mixed and sometimes unclear messaging from officials, some sick patients are still calling Ubers and Lyfts.
Angela Vogel, 39, an Uber driver and a member of the Philadelphia Drivers’ Union, said she’s been fielding constant calls from concerned drivers. The vast majority of customers right now are medical professionals or sick patients.
As a union, “we are encouraging any and all drivers who can stop driving to do so,” she said. But many can’t afford to take a break, especially since gig workers are likely ineligible for unemployment benefits.
For people still driving, Uber and Lyft have offered little guidance on safety, Vogel said. “I pray about it, and that’s about all I can do," one driver told The Inquirer last week.
An Uber spokesperson could not be reached for comment, but like Lyft the company has said it is providing hand sanitizer, discontinuing the shared ride or “pool” options, and suspending the accounts of any riders or drivers who test positive for the virus.
After her long walk home from the hospital, Justice found out she tested negative for the coronavirus. She was diagnosed with acute bronchitis and lung inflammation from a respiratory infection.
In Fishtown, David said he was finally able to get tested Friday. A neighbor who also had symptoms offered to drive him to a Penn testing site.
On Wednesday, 22 days after he got sick, he received his results. He tested positive.