The woman had been sick for three days, her temperature fluctuating between 100 and 104 degrees, her body in constant pain. That evening — March 11 — she had gone to the hospital, and as Wednesday stretched into Thursday morning, doctors put her through various tests. Strep. Flu. H1N1. All negative. She said the doctors eventually told her she probably had the novel coronavirus.
“Then they tested me for covid-19 and said there was nothing more they could do now,” said the woman, Jordan, who declined to give her full name because she was discussing private medical information. “They said I would get the results in two or three days.”
A week later, Jordan is bunkered in her apartment recovering. But she still doesn’t know whether she has the virus that has disrupted daily life across the country.
Jordan said she has been told there is a backlog of tests. On Wednesday, she learned her test “still hasn’t been run.” Thursday, the District had 40 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, but Jordan does not know whether she — or anyone with whom she has come into contact — will be soon be among the cases announced.
“President Trump was tested after me and got his results before me,” she said. “NBA players were tested after me, and they’ve gotten their results before me.”
MedStar Georgetown University Hospital did not respond to questions about a potential test backlog or delayed results. But Jordan’s story raises questions at a critical moment as the region braces for more cases of coronavirus infection.
Public-health experts argue that testing is key to maintaining an accurate window on the virus’s spread. Delays in delivery and confusion over test results threaten to distort that appraisal. And, according to Lucy Wilson, an infectious-disease specialist and faculty member at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, the health system is still trying to catch up after a slow start to testing.
“It hampered our ability to understand community spread early in the epidemic in the United States, and it hampered communities’ knowledge of that transmission in order to take precautions,” Wilson said. “Had we known more about community spread, perhaps we could have implemented control measures sooner and health care could have been more prepared.”
Jordan began feeling sick March 9. She was at work — she declined to name her employer — sitting at her desk at the end of the day, when soreness began creeping up her legs. It was a familiar warning sign from her body.
“Once, when I was a little kid, I had an experience when I had a high fever and lost control of my legs,” she explained. “Since then, whenever I’m about to get a virus, I feel pain in my legs. It doesn’t happen often, but it happens.”
She left right away. “When I got into my apartment, I sat down on my couch, and immediately my entire body hurt, all the way up to my head,” she said. “It felt like I had worked out like six times.”
Her fever rose Tuesday and Wednesday, and then came the cough. Although covid-19 cases were beginning to pop up across the Washington region, Jordan didn’t think she had the virus. She was healthy. She hadn’t traveled aboard or had close contact with anyone who had, as far as she knew. She had been on an Amtrak train in the previous two weeks, but that was it. She figured it was the flu.
Still, Wednesday evening, at the prompting of her boss, she went to the hospital. She emerged early Thursday wearing a face mask and thinking she had the virus. Confirmation would come soon, she expected.
Three days later, Jordan said, she called the hospital about her test results. “They said there was a big backup,” she said. “My test was one of the ones on backlog. They told me to call back on March 18th.”
But when she called back this week, her results still weren’t ready, she said.
Even when results come quickly, there can be confusion about the next steps.
After falling sick with a fever, severe sore throat and cough, a 46-year-old lawyer in Montgomery County unsuccessfully sought testing by her doctor and two urgent-care centers.
On Tuesday, the lawyer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect the identity of her two children, was finally tested after driving herself to the emergency room at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Northwest Washington.
The next morning, she learned she had covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. But she said an expert at the Johns Hopkins-affiliated hospital urged her to remain quarantined at home for 14 days after her symptoms — a fever, severe sore throat and cough — had passed. Then, she said, a nurse in the Montgomery County Health Department called to say she could go out sooner than that, leaving her confused.
“People need to understand: If they get sick, they are really on their own, and that’s frightening,” she said, as she retrieved a lunch tray her husband left in the hallway of her home. “All I have is time, so I have been frantically researching, and I can’t find any basis of her guidelines online.”
Jordan is still sequestered in her apartment in Washington. Her fever has dropped, but the cough continues.
“I’m coughing up a lot of stuff and my lungs are just exhausted,” she said. “I’m getting better, but I don’t know when I’ll be able to get out of my apartment. I’d like to take care of a parent who is immune-suppressed, but I don’t know when you shed the virus. There’s no education on that that I’ve been given.”
Worse, she isn’t sure what to tell friends and co-workers whom she could have exposed if she has the virus.
“I have all these people who I work with who have been self-quarantining themselves,” she said. “But without guidance or my test results, I’m worried this is probably spreading in the D.C. area without anyone knowing.”
Fenit Nerappil and Jenna Portnoy contributed to this report.