Letters to the Editor • Opinion
The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

VIPs go to the head of the line for coronavirus tests

Dozens of NBA players have gotten tests while many other Americans wait for diagnoses.

The NBA suspended its season after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) tested positive for coronavirus. (Duane Burleson/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

For 11 days, Luke Janka, an educator from Brooklyn, went from doctor to doctor to emergency room, pleading for a coronavirus test. As his lungs tightened and his desperation spiked, he was finally admitted to a hospital, put on oxygen and administered the test. At the same time, the entire roster of the Brooklyn Nets was quickly tested, even though most players appeared in perfect health. Results came back fast; four players, including star Kevin Durant, tested positive.

Actors, politicians and athletes have had quick and easy access to coronavirus tests while other Americans — including front-line health-care workers and those with obvious signs of infection — have been out of luck. The nationwide shortage of coronavirus testing kits has amplified inequities in a health-care system in which some merely call a concierge physician while others hope for attention in crowded emergency rooms.

“I think it’s unfortunate that we live in such a wealthy nation, and we can’t even provide access to the backbone of the nation, the people who actually do the work for the nation,” said Janka, who is awaiting results of his test from his hospital room. “And I think that it just helps to further illustrate the hypocrisy of our society, and who really gets valued in this country by the people with power and money.”

Asked Wednesday if the rich and powerful should have easier access to coronavirus testing than the general public, President Trump replied, “No, I wouldn’t say so, but perhaps that’s been the story of life.”

“That does happen on occasion,” he added, “and I’ve noticed where some people have been tested fairly quickly.”

On the same day that Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert fell ill in Oklahoma and was tested for the coronavirus this month, a female paramedic lay in a Tulsa hospital bed a little more than a hundred miles away, unable to obtain a test.

The 27-year-old athlete received approval from the state’s epidemiologist to undergo testing on March 11, according to a department spokeswoman; an Oklahoma State Department of Health laboratory confirmed late that day that he was positive. Within hours, 58 members of the Jazz and their local media were tested by a group of nurses and epidemiologists. Players for the Oklahoma City Thunder, who were scheduled to play against the Jazz in Oklahoma City when Gobert fell ill, were also tested.

Eight entire NBA teams have been tested for the virus, a list that includes the Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers and Toronto Raptors.

In the case of the emergency medical technician in Tulsa, the delay in testing may have had broader consequences. Her doctors did not receive approval to get her tested until March 12 and had to wait two more days for the result, according to two individuals familiar with the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record. At least two individuals treating the patient are now in quarantine, these individuals said, out of concern that they may not have been wearing proper protective gear before she was diagnosed.

“Everyone now aware of how the patient arrived, and the lack of respiratory precautions taken during the transfer, is concerned of possible exposure to multiple hospital workers,” said an employee in the hospital system, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly.

A spokeswoman for Hillcrest Medical Center, which is treating the patient, declined to comment Wednesday, citing federal privacy rules.

An official with Oklahoma’s health department acknowledged that coronavirus tests were, and continue to be, in short supply in Oklahoma at the time of Gobert’s test. The decision to administer the subsequent tests was influenced by loosened guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which now recommends tests for people who have been in “close contact” with a confirmed case.

“I can’t reiterate this enough: This was a solid public health decision,” said Jamie Dukes, the state health department’s public information manager. “These players had been in close contact with each other in the days leading up to these test results. They had all been in close contact. With that number of people being in close contact with a confirmed case, it was absolutely critical that we get them tested to identify any potential risk that was out there.”

In a news conference Wednesday, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) said the state is running “critically low on test kits.”

“Due to the critical low supplies we have, the state is going to have to reserve, until further notice, tests for only vulnerable populations — those who are experiencing severe symptoms,” he said.

DIY nasal swabs: Americans are desperate for coronavirus testing

Athletes are not the only prominent Americans to head to the front of the line for coronavirus testing. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) was tested for the coronavirus after he learned while flying on Air Force One with President Trump that he had been exposed to an infected person at the Conservative Political Action Conference. The congressman was tested at Walter Reed Hospital. Other allies of the president who obtained tests include Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the incoming White House chief of staff. Their tests came back negative.

“Of course we have a national interest in keeping the President safe,” Gaetz wrote on Twitter.

Joshua Sharfstein, a public health expert at Johns Hopkins and former FDA official under President Barack Obama, said that widespread testing for the general public is at least “a couple weeks away.” Generally, he said that tests should be administered based on the severity of symptoms. The government’s lack of an “organized response to testing” has made that difficult, if not impossible, to implement nationally, and set up institutions such as the National Basketball Association for criticism.

Gobert’s positive test triggered a total shutdown of the NBA and National Hockey League, and has delayed Opening Day in Major League Baseball. It also accelerated the country’s understanding of “social distancing,” the preferred strategy to combat the spread of coronavirus.

“He saved the nation from this being a really bad deal,” said a high-ranking team official with direct knowledge of Gobert’s testing procedure. “We just weren’t paying attention to this thing.”

But Gobert’s testing experience illustrates how NBA players have advantages not available to the general public, including the resources to pay for private testing and medical professionals on hand to advise and guide their decisions.

Perhaps most importantly, their teams often have close relationships and sponsorship deals with major health-care organizations. The Lakers partner with UCLA Health, the Atlanta Hawks partner with Emory Healthcare, and the Minnesota Timberwolves partner with the Mayo Clinic.

“We had, and still have, tests at the ready for our players,” said one high-ranking team official, citing his organization’s close relationship with a medical provider. “One phone call away.”

This person spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the team’s private health matters publicly.

The NBA, which initially instructed teams to be prepared for coronavirus symptoms and to have a testing plan in place, has left the decisions to its teams. The league office did not assist in arranging testing for Gobert or his teammates, according to people with direct knowledge of the situation. These people also spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk about the league’s private health matters publicly.

In a statement, the NBA said that their tests were administered at the recommendation of public health authorities, adding that the publicity surrounding the positive tests has “drawn attention to the critical need for young people to follow CDC recommendations in order to protect others, particularly those with underlying health conditions and the elderly.”

“You could put our players into a category of what some would refer to as ‘superspreaders,'” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told ESPN on Wednesday. “They are young people who are working in close proximity to each other, they are traveling at great frequency, they are regularly in large groups, including the public.”

After it was disclosed that the Brooklyn Nets arranged coronavirus testing for players at the recommendation of the team’s medical experts because multiple players and staff members were exhibiting symptoms, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) blasted the team on Twitter.

“An entire NBA team should NOT get tested for COVID-19 while there are critically ill patients waiting to be tested,” de Blasio tweeted. “Tests should not be for the wealthy, but for the sick.”

The Nets defended their decision as “the right thing to do for our players and their families [and] the responsible thing to do from a medical and epidemiological standpoint.”

“We sourced the tests through a private company and paid for them ourselves because we did not want to impact access to CDC’s public sources,” the Nets said in a statement. “Using the test results, we were able to take immediate precautions and strictly isolate the players who tested positive. If we had waited for players to exhibit symptoms, they might have continued to pose a risk to their family, friends and the public. Our hope is that by drawing attention to the critical need for testing asymptomatic positive [carriers], we can begin to contain the spread and save lives.”

One high-profile team has opted against testing its players given local shortages.

“We’ve been told that testing is in short supply,” Golden State Warriors General Manager Bob Myers told reporters Tuesday. “We’re not better than anybody. We’re not worse. We’re just a basketball team, like any company. I’ve been told by our doctors that we shouldn’t be testing asymptomatic people in California.”

Meryl Kornfield, Brittney Martin and Julie Tate contributed to this report. Martin is based in Houston.