One person, a Penn physician, was able to be screened for the coronavirus relatively quickly. Another got the runaround, but was eventually tested. A third was told he couldn’t be tested, and remains uncertain how concerned he should be about his persistent cough.
Drive-through testing sites across the Philadelphia region opened Monday and are serving about 1,000 people a day, hospital officials said. While the science exists to get back test results in a matter of hours, that’s not what will happen for people using the drive-through service. During this collection process, on-site medical personnel are swabbing samples from people’s nose and mouth and sending them to a lab, Quest, for testing. The following are the accounts of three people who have attempted, with differing levels of success, to be tested at a West Philadelphia site:
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His wife had returned from international travel last week with a dry cough.
“She’s also pregnant and she’s a little higher risk,” he said. “In light of that since I’m a health-care worker and I see patients as well, I elected to get testing done at the same time.”
The doctor, who asked not to be named because the hospital’s guidelines on what employees are able to say are in flux, said Penn Medicine sent out testing protocols to staff Monday. The hospital system is able to do its own COVID-19 tests, with results available in three to six hours, for seriously ill patients and health-care workers who have likely interacted with coronavirus victims, but it doesn’t have the capacity to offer such quick results beyond that group, he said.
He connected with a physician over teleconference who referred him and his wife to the drive-through testing site at 41st and Market Streets. Next, they had to make an appointment. The doctor described the process:
“The person on the other line asks screening questions like travel history, screening symptoms, whether lab tests were ordered for you, then schedules a five-to-10-minute slot for that lab to be tested.”
When the couple arrived Monday, they saw police directing traffic and medical staff wearing paper masks or Powered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPR), a protection system with a clear face mask and air filter that’s more protective than a surgical mask. They were met at their car by a physician and a couple of nurses, he said, and were asked about their lab test and risk factors.
There were three or four cars ahead of them, but they quickly were swabbed, which involved samples from both nostrils and the back of their mouths. The nasal swabs in particular are not comfortable, he said.
“Both my wife and I cried a little bit,” he said. “They have to go pretty deeply into the nostrils to get an adequate sample.”
They were told they could get results back in six to nine days.
The doctor also has a cough now, though he said he and his wife both feel OK. They are not in a high-risk age group.
The way testing has been made available nationally deeply frustrates him.
“Ideally we need to be testing as many people as fast as possible to be able to identify who’s infected and quarantine them,” he said. “It’s been really shocking just to kind of see our own health care and government’s response to this whole pandemic. It’s unfortunate just how unprepared we are to face it, and it’s unfortunate that we’ve just kind of missed critical time periods where we could have been producing test kits.”
Jessamine Bristow, 33, of West Philadelphia, started coughing and having chest pains more than a week ago. She thought it might be allergies, but then she developed a fever, which as of Wednesday was 102.2 degrees. Then her partner developed similar symptoms.
“OK, probably need to take this seriously,” she remembered thinking.
Her experience trying to get tested for the coronavirus, though, was not easy. Bristow’s first call was to her primary care provider at the Mazzoni Center, but the office was closed. Then a friend shared a flyer with information about Penn Medicine’s drive-through testing.
About 5:30 p.m. Monday, she said, she called Penn, but it was closed. She called the next day at 8 a.m.
“I had to wait on hold hearing about Penn’s state-of-the-art hospitals for palliative care for half an hour,” she said.
When someone finally answered the phone, she got information that differed from what was on the flyer, which had said she wouldn’t need a doctor’s referral to be tested. The person she spoke to, though, said she needed to show up at the site to see a doctor and get referred, then she would have to call once again to schedule a test.
“Then I would have to wait on hold to talk to them to schedule an appointment,” Bristow said, “which just seems completely convoluted.”
The person also said there was no drive-through service, which was incorrect. The Philadelphia Parking Authority was still ticketing vehicles for parking infractions then, she noted, and she didn’t want to drive and park nearby to walk to the 41st and Market Streets testing site.
“Of course if I’m positive for these symptoms I’m not going to take public transit and I wasn’t going to walk from where I live,” Bristow said.
She and her partner decided to wait until Wednesday to drive to the site.
“I just got stuck in the phone loop and got tired of getting the runaround,” she said. “They were supremely unhelpful.”
They didn’t realize the site was drive through until they arrived, Bristow said. Within five minutes the couple had talked to a nurse about their symptoms. Because they didn’t have a doctor’s referral they were directed to pull to the back of the testing area and call to make an appointment. They answered more screening questions and within 10 minutes they were slotted for a testing time, she said.
The test itself was uncomfortable but quick.
Bristow, a mechanic, is pretty sure she has COVID-19. One of her three housemates is asymptomatic but had contact in Boston recently with a person who has tested positive for the illness, something that came up during her screening process, and a recent synagogue event was attended by a person who now has symptoms.
“We’re all pretty young, we’re all pretty healthy, none of us are immunocompromised or anything, but it seems like we have the classic symptoms,” she said of herself and her roommates. “We’re doing our best to quarantine ourselves as a household.”
She’s finding herself easily winded by physical activity but is grateful the illness hasn’t included nausea or sinus congestion. Her greatest worry, she said, isn’t for her own health, but for the people who might become sick because the nation has been slow to offer testing.
“It seems like it’s probably not going to manifest in a severe way in our household, but I have a lot of immunocompromised friends who are guessing what the best thing to do is,” she said. “It’s so frustrating to me that if we had wider testing we could have gotten a week or two ahead of this.”
The first Joshua Marcus heard of the testing site at 41st and Market Streets was through a Facebook group. He had been experiencing a dry cough for about 10 days, the 44-year-old said, and on Tuesday drove to the testing center. He called the number on a sign there, and was told that even though he didn’t have a referral, he could get one on-site.
That led the West Philadelphia man to a line of 25 cars on the right side of Market Street, where police directed traffic. At the entrance to the testing area he told a staffer his symptoms, and he was directed to an area where he again called the number on the Penn Medicine sign.
This time the person on the phone told him that because his doctor was a Penn Medicine general practitioner he needed that doctor’s referral. He messaged his doctor, who told him that because he didn’t have a fever and he had symptoms for 10 days, it was unlikely he had the coronavirus. Marcus trusts the diagnosis, he said, but he is still uneasy.
“I’d rather know one way or the other,” he said.
The father of two noted that at his age, he was at the cusp of the elevated-risk curve.
“I also have family members who are high risk,” he said. “I’m glad they’re on lockdown as well.”
If you are experiencing coronavirus symptoms, which can include a dry cough and fever, and think you should be tested, you may be able to get a test in your area. But you can’t just show up to the testing sites. First, call your primary care doctor or schedule a virtual consultation if that option is available. They will evaluate your symptoms and determine whether to refer you for a test. Here are the locations of testing sites:
Again, you must consult a doctor and get a referral before being tested. Here are some ways you can start the process: Penn Medicine patients can call 215-615-2222 or use the MyPennMedicine app. Jefferson Health patients can go to hospitals.jefferson.edu/jeffconnect. Main Line Heath patients can call 866-225-5654.