And the test result says...

Friday, April 17, 2020

This is the second of a two-part story about my experience with being tested for the coronavirus.

I had been housebound for more than a week after being tested for the coronavirus. Each day I called the Community Health Center/Southeast Kansas to learn if my test results had returned.

I began showing symptoms late March 29 and was tested on March 31. It was now April 8. My temperature had abated days before, but I was still coughing and feeling weak. During one daily call with my son, I told him I was going to be well before I knew I was sick.

OK. I knew I was sick. Naming it would not make me feel better, but I like to put a name to things. And I had co-workers, family and friends who wanted to know.

On April 8, I learned my test was negative for COVID-19.

I did not have to remain in “isolation” as long was I was without a fever for 72 hours.

I had a burst of energy, although it was short-lived. I felt free. Until then, I did not realize how melancholy I had been.

Before I got sick, I viewed quarantine as a gift to all the introverts in the world. It would have been a gift if I had been well. On nicer days, I ventured to the front porch and saw yard projects. Inside, there were unfinished craft projects, although I didn’t need to finish the jacket I was sewing for Easter Sunday. Thank God I had cleaned my house before I got sick.

I escaped from the little bungalow a couple of times during my quarantine. I loaded my pal, the old Aussie, in the car and drove through Gunn Park, then Riverfront Park. The world was turning without us. The dog and I looked at the scenery and people enjoying a spring evening. If only we could get out and walk a bit, but the trips wore me out and I couldn’t take a chance on being around anyone.

But now I was free to resume life in the new normal.

I spent the next hour making phone calls. Then, to celebrate, I treated myself to a chocolate shake, which I had been craving for the past two nights.

The boss and I agreed I would step back into the work routine slowly, beginning the next day, a Thursday.

That plan was nixed when a call from the Southeast Kansas Multi-county Health Department woke me up the next morning. It was sweet Public Health Nurse Alice Maffett, who had tried calling the day before, but I had missed the call. She asked about my symptoms and said she was concerned about my cough, which was better, but still there. She suggested I not go back to work until after Easter Sunday. In a way, I was relieved because I wasn’t sure how much I could handle.

If I didn’t have COVID-19, what did I have? Obviously it was some kind of virus. The main thing is, I’m getting well and to my knowledge, I have not passed the illness to anyone else.

Knock on wood.

How many calls like the one to me had Alice made? After climbing back in the saddle on Monday, my goal has been to find answers to my questions.

Asking questions as a reporter is a lot like talking to God – you always get an answer, but the answer isn’t always what you expect.

According to Kansas Department of Health and Environment, on March 31, the day I was tested, there were 428 confirmed cases, nine deaths and 4,996 negative tests in the state. At that time, Bourbon County had three confirmed cases.

On April 9, the state reported 1,106 confirmed cases. The county’s totals had risen to seven confirmed cases and one death.

As of Friday, 97 people have been tested in Bourbon County.

According to Rebecca Johnson, SEKMCHD administrator and public health official for Bourbon County, the department has conducted 60 investigations per month and has quarantined 80 people since the outbreak. It has stretched the department’s resources, or staff, she said in an email to me.

Bourbon County reported its first confirmed case March 22, prompting Johnson to issue an order restricting business activity in Bourbon County.

As it turns out, waiting a little more than a week to get results back is not so uncommon. Johnson said results are returned within two to 10 days. But according to Robert Poole, CHC/SEK spokesperson, the turnaround time is improving.

Poole said in the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment Laboratory was the only COVID-19 testing facility in Kansas.

“And it quickly back-logged and we waited up to two weeks or more for some of the early test returns,” Poole said in an email to me. “After a couple of weeks into the surge, KHEL was able to add additional equipment and manpower so that improved things there.”

Poole said on March 25, the Kansas City Star reported the state had the ability to run about 900 tests in the public lab “and is going through between 150 and 200 each day.”

“However, that could certainly change depending on the demand,” Poole said. “For everyone’s peace of mind, we are looking forward to the day we have access to an FDA approved in-house COVID-19 test.”

Poole said private labs, such as Quest Diagnostics, were later approved for COVID-19 testing.

“However their facilities were also quickly reaching capacity and were supporting states across the country,” Poole said. “We were told our first Quest samples were being processed in California, and some of those were taking up to two weeks before we were receiving results. Soon after, Quest ramped up again and brought COVID-19 testing on line in Lenexa, saying they should be able to ramp up to 30,000 tests a day, according to a press release.”

As of Monday, the turnaround time for tests collected at CHC/SEK is averaging four to five days, Poole said.

My test was sent to Quest Diagnostics in Lenexa. With numerous laboratories throughout the U.S. as well as Mexico, Ireland and India, lab-specific data is not available, according to Kimberly Gorode of Quest Diagnostics.

Quest uses the Centers for Disease Control priority patient ranking system. The turnaround time for P1 patients is one day and two days for all other patients, Gorode said in an email Thursday. Last week, a third priority level was added.

“Essentially a patient’s specimen is collected at a testing site (drive-through, doctor’s office or hospital – we’re not collecting at our patient service centers.) It is picked up by one of Quest’s 3,700 couriers and taken to a lab for processing.

“Some specimens also require air travel to get to the destination lab. Quest has 23 planes for this purpose.

“Specimen processing typically takes approximately one day, but can take up to two. Then, results are sent to the ordering physician and can be accessed through a patient’s MyQuest account if they have one.”

Quest has been working 24/7 to process COVID-19 samples, but this is not unusual. Gorode said Quest operates 24/7 on a normal basis and is “staffed appropriately to handle COVID testing demands.”

As of Thursday, there was no backlog, Gorode said, but during the week of March 30, when I was tested, Quest experienced a backlog of 115,000 tests nationwide.

“(Quest) is well positioned to accommodate additional orders for diagnostic testing for COVID-19. Our current capacity exceeds demand for these services,” Gorode said. “In order to ensure patients are receiving testing they need, we are expanding our outreach to healthcare providers, including those with unique needs, such as nursing homes and federally qualified healthcare centers (FQHCs). This effort builds on our patient prioritization program, which we extended last week to include patients deemed Priority 1, 2 and 3 by the CDC.

“When we launched this test in early March, we launched with our lab-developed test in one lab, and quickly brought up the Roche (research laboratory) test and eventually Hologic (a medical technology company) test in 12 labs. It’s really an incredible feat – something that typically takes months was accomplished in weeks. Our first week of testing we were processing about 1,000-plus tests per day and now we’re up to 45K per day with no backlog.”

Gorode referred me to a New York Times article a COVID-19 test from when a specimen is taken to when the patient received the call. According to the article, a Roche Cobas 800 can run 500 tests in less than eight hours. If one lab has been maxed out, specimens can be sent to other Quest Labs elsewhere in the country.