Sick people across the United States are being told they don’t qualify for coronavirus testing because they don’t have documented exposure to someone with the disease. People with documented exposure to someone with the disease are being told they don’t qualify for testing because they’re not sick—or anyway, they’re not symptomatic. They might still be spreading COVID-19. But meanwhile, powerful people seem to be getting tested at the drop of a hat.
In California, a man who gave his wife mouth-to-mouth resuscitation before she died of coronavirus hasn’t been able to get tested because he doesn’t show enough symptoms, while powerful people like Sen. Lindsey Graham and Reps. Matt Gaetz and Mark Meadows get tested without symptoms after casual contact with someone who tested positive.
Trump’s take on the testing inequities: “perhaps that’s been the story of life.” It’s definitely been the story of his life! And one he works every day to keep perpetuating.
Part of the issue is the lack of available tests, and part is a patchwork system of conflicting rules about who should get tested—rules that all too often seem to adjust to how well-connected the person asking to be tested is.
In many cases the rules also seem to be designed not to catch the spread of the disease. As of March 10, The Atlantic reported, “In at least 13 states, the rules effectively discourage doctors from testing patients who have no known ties to existing cases—exactly the kind of ‘community case’ that would signal that the pandemic has reached a dangerous new stage in a city or region, and that the virus is now spreading among strangers.” In more than one case, doctors with symptoms couldn’t get themselves tested because they couldn’t document exposure to a confirmed COVID-19 case—documentation they lacked because of the lack of testing.
But somehow 58 people from the Utah Jazz got tested after one player tested positive. The Oklahoma State Department of Health, where the testing was done, assures us that this did not constitute special treatment. And it does make sense to test people who would be exposed to lots of other people! It does—it’s just that testing asymptomatic people because it makes sense to do it is not how testing is being done in general in the United States of America.
It’s not just the Jazz, either. Four members of the Brooklyn Nets got tested, even though only one is symptomatic. And they should be tested. It’s just that they’re getting tested when other people, less connected people, would not be tested under the same circumstances. If regular people were getting the same access to tests as powerful ones, we might not be in a situation where the number of confirmed cases in Massachusetts is in the hundreds while experts estimate the real number is in the thousands—a situation that is certainly the case in state after state.
These inequities in testing also have to make us regular people nervous about how it’s going to go when decisions are being made about who gets the last ventilator. That’s why it’s so critical both to get the healthcare system by doing things like boosting ventilator production and getting the Army Corps of Engineers involved now and to have extremely transparent guidelines for rationing care.
Right now we live in a country where a diabetic senior citizen who gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to someone dying of coronavirus can’t get tested even when he gets a fever, because the fever is too low to count as a symptom, while multiple members of Congress and dozens of professional basketball players get tested because of less extreme exposure while showing no symptoms. That has to change, and fast.