COVID-19 Testing: Where you live may determine whether you get tested

People concerned they should have been tested

COVID-19 Testing By State

(InvestigateTV) - People around the country are frustrated about whether they may or may not have coronavirus COVID-19. That frustration comes from a lack of testing - many people who want it are being denied access.

Some states are requiring a doctor’s permission, a very specific set of symptoms or confirmed contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

"It might not be that, but you won't really know until you get tested, so it just kind of leaves you in a place where you don't really know what’s going on,” Jonathan Chaney told InvestigateTV Columbia, South Carolina affiliate WIS-TV.

Chaney wanted his 7-year-old daughter tested after she showed symptoms but was denied.

In Missouri, Chris Moore told InvestigateTV he couldn’t get testing. He had some common symptoms of COVID-19, including fever and difficulty breathing. He called the state hotline, but once he gave all of his symptoms, said he was denied testing.

“As soon as I said runny nose, there was no asking for clarification or follow-up questions or anything. The lady on the hotline just interrupted me and said, ‘oh, you’re fine. You don’t need to test. Those aren’t coronavirus symptoms,’” Moore said. “Runny nose means I’m good.”

Moore also told the state his wife had recently visited a friend who had been to coronavirus hotspots Seattle and South Korea and was showing symptoms.

“We’re under a federal state of emergency. There’s a worldwide pandemic. In my opinion, if anyone is having any symptoms, they need to be tested. Because how else are you going to get control of this thing?” Moore said.

Dr. Brobson Lutz, a former medical director of the city of New Orleans, said the limiting protocols seemed to be intentional.

“Initially, it seemed like to me that the testing restrictions were established to discourage testing,” Lutz said. “The importance of the test though is to let you know what’s going on in the community.”

Health departments issue varying criteria for test authorization

Location doesn’t just impact your ability to get tested - it can also determine how easy it is to find out if you are eligible for COVID-19 testing.

As of March 13, most states had a COVID-19 hotline in place to screen calls related to the virus. In many places, callers were automatically directed to respective hotlines when calling state departments of health. Due to a high volume of calls, however, many states' hotlines posed obstacles.

In some states, such as Oklahoma, Missouri and Colorado, wait times before a caller could speak with an agent were 20 minutes or longer.

In New Jersey, the hold time was 35 minutes before the line was disconnected.

InvestigateTV hung up on the Tennessee Department of Health after waiting on hold for an hour and three minutes.

Other state health departments, such as those in West Virginia, Massachusetts and Texas, appeared not to accept calls if the caller ID did not come from inside the state. InvestigateTV first called the Texas Department of Health on a cell phone with a Miami, Florida, area code, and the call was denied. When using a cell phone with an Arlington, Texas, area code, the call went through to the health department.

InvestigateTV called each state’s health department or responsible authority to collect information about the criteria each state is using for patients to qualify for coronavirus COVID-19 testing. Click on each dot to see what each state told us over the phone on the date shown, the phone number people can call for information and any information InvestigateTV was able to gather about cost. Click here to see the map full-screen.

The criteria to qualify for COVID-19 varies state by state and has changed day by day. In most states, the first step to getting tested for COVID-19 was a referral from an individual's primary care physician.

In North Carolina, a COVID-19 hotline operator said there was a “good chance it might change from today to tomorrow” when asked what the state requirements to qualify for testing were on March 12.

InvestigateTV called again on March 15 and was told North Carolina had begun testing patients who already exhibited symptoms of coronavirus, and who had travelled to affected areas. In weeks prior, the growing list of affected areas have included Italy, South Korea and China.

As of March 15, North Carolina also warned that New York, California and Washington were designated affected areas.

Some states have changed protocol in the last week

As the number of cases grow and accessibility to tests changes, some states are adjusting their protocols.

Wisconsin initially required doctors to get state permission to have a test run. Health officials said it could take an hour and a half to get that permission. Eventually, the state adjusted and allowed physician discretion.

"We identified that in order to do that, we need to know exactly when and where transmission is occurring. We need to test a lot more people than we have been,” said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Chief Medical Officer of the Bureau of Communicable Diseases in Wisconsin.

Alaska also made adjustments in the last week, sending out new recommendations to health care providers on March 10 that would allow for more testing. According to InvestigateTV calls, the state only requires doctor referral.

“We are trying to amplify this testing as quickly as possible, but it’s also important to remember the test is not a cure, nor is the test preventative,” said Dr. Anne Zirk, Alaska State Medical Officer.

Private testing may increase accessibility

Lutz, the former New Orleans medical director, said he believes as doctors are given more latitude and access to tests through private labs, more will be given.

“I think that the commercial laboratory tests are gearing up now, and I think that will make it much easier for physicians to get specimens tested and you don’t have to deal with the state’s protocol of the day, whatever it is,” Lutz said.

He is still concerned about the length of time it is taking some results to come back - often three to four days.

“That’s usually a little too long to make important clinical decisions if I really need the results of that test,” Lutz said.

Moore, the Missouri man who is concerned he may be infected, said he has been self-quarantining. But he said he also hopes testing will increase soon so people will make informed choices.

“Say someone like me goes in there and is told, ‘Okay, you’re fine. Runny nose.’ And they don’t think anything else from it. They just trust what they were told and continue on from there,” Moore said. “What if that person does actually have it and they’re just going off of ‘hey, I was told I was fine?’ And they go to work, they go to the movies and they go to a restaurant. How often is that happening?”

State research conducted by: Laura Jayne, Emma Ruby, Peter Buffo, John Canicosa, Cody Downey, Anum Siddiqui, and Erin Snodgrass from Loyola University New Orleans.

InvestigateTV News Content Specialist Tess Rowland contributed to this report.

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