In-Depth

Houstonians Denied And Delayed Testing As Officials Roll Out COVID-19 Test Sites

Houstonians are scrambling to get tested at hospitals, free drive-thru sites, or shelling out money for a test at private clinics. And they’re encountering all kinds of problems.

After being denied COVID-19 testing, Maegan Blackwell was later hospitalized after having problems breathing.

For more stories and information about the coronavirus, visit our ongoing coronavirus coverage. If you want to tell us about what you're experiencing in your Houston community — whether that be trying to obtain testing, personal protective equipment, or paid sick leave — we're here to listen. You can email us at news@houstonpublicmedia.org.

As COVID-19 continues to spread through communities across the region, Houstonians who’ve displayed symptoms are scrambling to get tested for the disease.

But for many, that hasn’t been so easy.

Maegan Blackwell, a 32-year-old mom in Katy, has been dealing with symptoms of COVID-19 for more than a week: flu-like symptoms, and worse.

“The body aches are easily ten times what the flu is, just the body aches alone, Blackwell said. “That's not the crushing chest pain, that's not the coughing, that's not the fatigue.”

“I wouldn't wish this on my enemy,” she said.

Despite her symptoms, Blackwell still doesn't know if she has COVID-19. She said trying to get tested has been a fiasco.

“There's so much red tape,” she said, “the whole thing's a mess.”

Blackwell said when she talked to her primary care doctor, they consulted the CDC which said Blackwell should be tested.

“The CDC said ‘yes she's presumptive positive send her to the ER right now. She needs a test immediately’.”

So Blackwell showed up to Memorial Hermann Katy with her three-year-old.

“They decided because there was no pneumonia in my lungs yet, that they were going to deny me the test that the CDC had asked for and send me home,” she said.

MORE FROM HOUSTON PUBLIC MEDIA: Where You Can Get Tested for COVID-19 In The Houston Area

Back-alley testing

Testing issues have emerged not only in Houston, but across the country.

The U.S. lags behind other countries in terms of how many people are being tested, and Texas is no exception. At the time this article was published, Texas had only tested some 13,000 people compared to 91,000 people in New York State, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

Various testing sites have been rolled out by local officials to accelerate the testing process, but even those efforts have been met with frustration.

The hospital wouldn’t even test Blackwell for COVID-19, despite the CDC’s recommendation. But she didn't give up.

Blackwell said she got in touch with another doctor in Sugarland who could get her tested. That doctor was convinced she had the disease.

“(The doctor) left a test kit outside the back door of the hospital next to the lab retrieval box,” Blackwell said. “Since I knew how to do the test, I did the test myself and put it in the lab box for pick-up. This way we weren't contaminating anyone in her office. Like back-alley drug deal kind of stuff.”

Inside Maegan Blackwell’s room the first time she went to Memorial Hermann Katy.

Long wait times

For those who do have an opportunity for a test, long lines have also acted as a roadblock. When drive-through testing rolled out in Houston, hundreds of cars lined up and down surrounding streets, hoping to get tested on the first day.

That was the case at United Memorial Medical Center, one of the region’s first designated testing sites open to the public. Houston resident Charlotte Eddington said she waited more than seven hours to get tested at United Memorial.

Eddington said her family was dealing with a bad cough, and her husband’s manager said he couldn’t work unless he got tested.

“The line was almost never moving,” Eddington said. “We would sit with the car stopped for an hour at a time and then it would move just a little bit.”

The line was so long that people had to get out of their cars to use gas station restrooms while they waited, Eddington said.

Then came bad news.

“It was almost 7 (p.m.) when a truck was driving past us and rolled down their window and signaled for us to roll down our window and he said, ‘hey there's no more test’,” said Eddington.

After waiting all day long, the family headed home without getting tested at all.

And Eddington’s family wasn’t alone. Eric DiMarzio and his wife also waited in their car for hours at United Memorial Medical Center, arriving an hour before the testing site opened.

“She walked ahead and counted that there were about 325 cars in front of us,” DiMarzio said.

The couple had recently returned from a trip to Iceland — a country with a high rate of COVID-19 cases — and his wife is a health care worker, so they were willing to wait to get the test. Some people's car batteries even died while they waited, Di Marzio said.

Like Eddington’s family, they left without getting tested, with many cars still ahead of them. DiMarzio said they would likely go again on another day.

“But right now, after this experience, we're hoping to get someplace that we can have a better idea of exactly how long it would take,” he said.

Others in line at United Memorial Medical Center said they won't try again.

Confusion around payment

Adding to the problems is confusion over cost and how to pay for testing.

Shannon Flores was able to get tested at the My Family Doctor clinic on Hillcroft, but she said it took several rounds of phone calls to coordinate with her primary care physician and insurance company.

Flores had done her best to show up at the clinic prepared, but didn’t know she needed to bring $25 in cash.

“There was a scramble. I grabbed my wallet. I only had $11 in cash,” Flores said. “My wife had to put the three kids in the car and drive to Hillcroft to bring me the rest.”

She finally got tested after waiting in line for five hours. Many others wanted to get tested but left the line once they realized they needed cash, she said.

“I got really lucky,” Flores said. “I had the paperwork from my PCP putting me on quarantine, and we had a secondary connection to Italy. So I got the test taken finally.”

In total, Flores said they were charged $75 in total, including a co-pay. Others without insurance were charged $150, she said.

One reason she was persistent about getting the test is because Flores said she felt it's important that officials have accurate data about cases to inform their decision-making.

“I want the government to know the real number so we can plan as best we can in this uncharted territory,” she said. “Without the data, we're kind of flying blindly.”

Maegan Blackwell has been to the hospital twice for respiratory issues related to what doctors believe is COVID-19.

Delayed results

Once you pass the hurdles to get tested, that still doesn’t ensure a swift diagnosis.

Even though wait times have improved, there's still the issue of delays in getting those test results back.

Maegan Blackwell still has no official confirmation that she has COVID-19.

“I need answers,” she said. “Am I or am I not positive?”

Days after speaking with Houston Public Media, Blackwell was hospitalized after having difficulty breathing, and she's still waiting for results from her test a week ago.

She said she’s worried about the people she was in contact with before she got sick. She’d like to be able to tell them definitively whether or not she has the virus.

The importance of pre-screening

Whether or not people present symptoms or are in a high-risk group, many want to be tested regardless. But health experts are urging individuals to use a screening process beforehand to determine whether it’s truly necessary, since testing capacity is limited.

Harris County has released an online tool to determine whether someone should or should not get tested.

“Our process will really involve a screening process and then routing individuals to the testing sites, hopefully the processes that we have in place will alleviate some of those issues (like long lines),” said Harris County Public Health’s Dr. Sherri Onyiego.

It’s vital that front-line workers like first-responders and health care professionals are prioritized for testing, Onyiego added.

One of the key steps in avoiding the contraction or spread of COVID-19 is social distancing, especially for those who have symptoms of COVID-19.

A diagnosis doesn’t change much on an individual basis, according to Dr. Dona Murphey, a neurologist and community organizer in Houston.

“Testing at this point is for a disease that has no vaccine and has no cure," Murphey said. “The purpose it serves for the general public is really to illustrate to them that it's actually a real problem, that this thing is really widespread.”

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