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Why Can’t You Get A Coronavirus Test? Supplies Are Limited As Chicagoans Are Fed Up And Fearful

Chicagoans who feel sick but can't get tested for coronavirus are living in limbo, unable to hug their kids, go shopping for groceries or work without worrying they're putting people at risk.

Pennsylvania Commonwealth microbiologist Kerry Pollard performs a manual extraction of the coronavirus inside the extraction lab at the Pennsylvania Department of Health Bureau of Laboratories on Friday, March 6, 2020.
Governor Tom Wolf/Flickr
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CHICAGO — Thousands of Chicagoans are trying to get tested for coronavirus, but the vast majority are being turned away.

Testing has been extremely limited in Illinois due to a lack of supply. It’s expanded in recent days, but Gov. JB Pritzker acknowledged Wednesday there still isn’t enough.

So far, there have been 2,052 tests done in Illinois, with 288 confirmed cases of coronavirus — including 104 in Chicago — and one death from the virus.

But Pritzker and other officials say there are likely many more cases and more will start being confirmed as testing expands.

In comparison, places like South Korea have had widespread testing — and far more control over their outbreaks.

“I would describe [testing] as the biggest challenge we’ve faced so far,” Pritzker said. He added there are millions of people being tested around the world — “but not in the United States.”

Ideally, everyone should be tested, Pritzker said: That would ease people’s minds and would help officials see where outbreaks are occurring so they can isolate people who test positive and better protect communities that are vulnerable to the illness.

But the federal government made mistakes early in the crisis that slowed down the creation and supply of tests, Pritzker said. He’s repeatedly demanded more testing supplies from the feds — in public and in private, he says — but Illinois has received just a small portion of the hundreds of thousands it will need.

Hoping to make up the difference, Pritzker said he’s personally reached out to CEOs, asking them to supply Illinois with testing kits.

But the supply is still low, so Illinois has had to limit its testing to those who are most at risk from coronavirus — the elderly and people with underlying conditions — or those experiencing severe symptoms.

RELATED: Think You Might Have Coronavirus? Here’s What To Do

At this point, giving a test to everyone who wants one would be impossible, and people who aren’t at severe risk from coronavirus don’t need to be tested — the tests should instead be saved for people in danger from the illness, officials said.

“If you’re ill and otherwise healthy and you think you probably were exposed to a COVID case, but you’re healthy, you can weather this illness — you don’t need a test,” said Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, during a Wednesday briefing. “Assume you have COVID and stay home.”

But the lack of testing has caused frustration and fear among Chicagoans who worry they have the virus but haven’t been able to get that diagnosis confirmed.

‘It Raises More Questions Than It Answers’

On March 10, one Old Irving Park woman noticed her throat was sore. Within three days, she said, she “was really feeling it.” She had a fever, dry cough and chest soreness — some of the most common symptoms of coronavirus.

The illness hung around. The woman, who also has asthma, started having to use her inhaler more frequently.

But the symptoms weren’t like what she experiences with asthma, the woman said — while asthma makes her chest tight, this new illness “just hurts.”

“You can’t breathe deeply,” said the 29-year-old woman. “You can’t run up and down stairs.”

This weekend, the woman started worrying her illness was coronavirus. She isolated herself, concerned she could spread the disease.

And on Tuesday, she tried to get tested. She called a hotline, which took her to a phone call where she was screened. A nurse spoke with the woman for a half hour and told the woman to use her inhaler more.

The nurse then forwarded the woman to a doctor, and the doctor forwarded the woman to an online form, where she filled out five or six pages’ worth of questions, she said.

A half hour later, officials told her, “You probably have some kind of virus. You should stay home and take Prednisone,” the woman said.

“It took about … four or five hours between waiting and being on the phone to even get that much,” the woman said Wednesday. “It’s really nerve-wracking because it feels like it raises more questions than it answers.

“I’m still sitting here thinking I don’t know what to do except stay home and try not to breathe on anyone except my boyfriend.”

RELATED: Coronavirus In Chicago: With Millions Out Of Work, State And City Officials Scramble To ‘Put Money In Their Pocket’

Stuck in uncertainty, the woman and her boyfriend are putting off visits with relatives like his grandma and her father, are unable to do favors for neighbors and are struggling with figuring out how to do everyday tasks, like getting groceries, without putting others at risk.

They tried to order home supplies delivered through online services, the woman said, but every service was full or couldn’t work with the couple’s schedule.

And the woman said she visited her work office twice last week, before she thought she had COVID-19. There are people there older than 55, which particularly worries her since older people are more susceptible to severe cases of coronavirus.

Getting the test and knowing if she has coronavirus would put her mind at ease, she said, and make it easier to go about her life.

“It would help my coworkers know they need to be on alert. It would help me know how many precautions I need to take to do something like buy a gallon of milk,” the woman said. “It would help to really lessen the stress of: Is this something I need to go to the emergency room for? Or [can I] inhale a little Vick’s Vapor Rub and take a nap?

“It’s just confounding.”

‘Just Assume That You May Have Coronavirus’

As recently as Wednesday afternoon, Pritzker and other officials stressed there still aren’t enough tests for everyone, though “thousands and thousands” more will become available in coming days.

But like Ezike, Pritzker said not everyone needs a test. Instead, act as if you know you have coronavirus and stay home as much as possible, he said.

“You should just assume that you may have coronavirus. Just assume that,” he said. “What would you do? You should self-isolate.”

But not knowing is difficult for many.

Jessica Burtnett, 42, lives in an six-flat in Andersonville, sharing a condo with her husband and two young children.

Burnett noticed Monday she had a fever, which is unusual for her. It stayed through the night, and she remembered that last week one of her coworkers had been out for several days because he’d had a fever and shortness of breath. He tested negative for the flu and tried to get tested for coronavirus, but he was unable to.

Sick and worried she’d been exposed to a potential coronavirus patient, Burtnett decided to get tested Tuesday.

She saw on Twitter that Northwestern was offering “drive-thru” testing. She headed to the hospital, only to be told she would have to call in and get screened first.

Burtnett called in and the screener asked if Brunett had traveled outside the United States (no), if she’d been exposed to someone with a confirmed case of coronavirus (she couldn’t be positive) and what her symptoms were.

The screener told Burnett unless she had a fever, sore throat and a cough or unless she could link herself to a confirmed case of the virus she could not be tested.

“She said they have limited tests available so they’re only testing people who are the worst cases, basically,” Burtnett said. She was “extremely frustrated because if nobody can get tested then nobody can link themselves to a confirmed case.”

Since she’s “having to live in limbo,” Burnett and her family are treating her illness like it is definitively coronavirus.

That means she hasn’t been able to hug her children. She can’t help her husband care for the kids, so he’s had to extremely limit his work. They’ve canceled their plans, including having a tutor come over for their out-of-school son, so they wouldn’t put others at risk.

“It sucks. It’s lonely. It’s one thing to be in isolation with your family and to be able to still watch movies and play games and go for walks and do things like that,” Burnett said. “But having to limit your own interaction with your own family while you’re in a small, confined place? It just sucks. And it makes me feel helpless that I can’t help my husband when there are struggles that are going on … .”

Burtnett hasn’t left her condo because several of her neighbors are elderly and she wouldn’t want to put them at risk. When her family has had to leave so they can do things like walk the dog, they’re being careful to avoid touching things in case they’re asymptomatic carriers.

So all day, Burnett stays inside her bedroom; when she does have to go to other rooms, she wears a mask and she’s “constantly” scrubbing her hands. When the kids need to ask her a question or talk with her, they speak from the hallway.

“I’m frustrated with the lack of testing and don’t know if that’s an intentional thing from the government or what,” Burtnett said. “We’re never gonna know the true impact of this unless everybody can get tested.

“It angers me that the response has been so poor.”

Symptoms

Coronavirus can be deadly, but the vast majority of cases have been mild. Those most at risk from the virus are people who are elderly or who have underlying health conditions.

Symptoms of coronavirus can appear two to 14 days after a person has been exposed to the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control. People with no symptoms may have the virus and spread it to others.

The virus spreads between people through coughing and sneezing, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

The most common symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

People have also experienced body aches, nasal congestion, runny nose and sore throat, according to Harvard Medical School.

If you or someone else has difficulty breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, become confused, cannot be roused or develop a bluish face or lips, get immediate medical attention, according to the CDC.

How To Protect Yourself

The CDC only recommends those are already sick wear facemasks because they help you avoid spreading the virus.

Here’s what you can actually do to prevent getting ill:

  • The CDC and other officials have said people should wash their hands often, including before, during and after eating; after using the bathroom; and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.
    The CDC has a guide here for how to properly wash your hands. Remember: Wash with soap and water, scrubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds.
  • If you can’t wash your hands with soap and water, you can use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
  • Avoid touching your face, especially your eyes, nose and mouth, with unwashed hands.
  • Clean and disinfect objects and surfaces you touch frequently, like cellphones and light switches. Here are tips from the CDC.
  • Stay home when you’re sick and avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • If you have to sneeze with a tissue, throw it out immediately after using it, according to the CDC.

What To Do If You Think You’re Sick

Even if you’re not showing symptoms, the Chicago Department of Public Health recommends people coming from high-risk countries (here’s a CDC list) self-quarantine for 14 days after returning home.

If you do have symptoms of coronavirus, contact your primary doctor or a health care facility before going in. Explain your symptoms and tell them if you’ve come into close contact with anyone with coronavirus or traveled to an area where corona is widespread (here’s a CDC list) within the last 14 days, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

From there, the experts will work with your local health department to determine what to do and if you need to be tested for coronavirus, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

And, of course, if you think you’re sick with coronavirus, don’t risk exposing other people to the virus. Anyone who feels unwell has been advised to stay home.

Those with questions and concerns about coronavirus can call the Illinois Department of Public Health at 800-889-3931.

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

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