A Covid Chronicle

I probably don’t have Covid-19.

Since the Saharan dust blew in, I have been having some fairly minor congestion and a cough that comes and goes. It gets worse overnight, as it always does when my allergies flare up and congestion builds. I’m still taking my allergy medications everyday and the symptoms are very minor, other than a coughing fit every once in a while. I didn’t and still don’t feel much different than I almost always do when my allergies get the best of me for a few days. 

I probably don’t have Covid-19. 

I should add that I am a pastor in a local congregation. When the pandemic first hit, we immediately went to online only worship for about 3 months. We have continued that option, but have had 3 weeks of in person worship in addition to the online offering. We have pretty strict measures in place and only about 30% of our usual attendees have been present. That allows us to be socially distant. All in all, I think we have done a really good job of upholding the value of safety and doing things remotely as much as possible. 

Personally, we’ve had a few family members over for brief visits and I go to the grocery store or drive-thru line of a restaurant on occasion. I go to work, but at most two other people are in the building at the same time with me and we’re almost never in the same room. I wear my mask when going out anywhere I might be exposed to people, including in worship (other than the moments I’m actually speaking), and I haven’t had a handshake or a hug with a non family member in months. 

I therefore (probably) don’t have Covid-19. 

I still had a moment Sunday morning where I really started to wonder if I should go to worship at all. If I was not responsible for leading the service, I would have stayed home. But I was not feeling all that bad, had not had any signs of fever, I had no reason to think I had been exposed to anyone with the virus, and we’ve barely been anywhere since March. It was just a slight tickle in my throat and a tiny bit of drainage that led to the occasional cough. Plus, I can easily avoid getting anywhere near people and just keep to myself while everyone gets ready and situated. I went in and did mostly fine until halfway through the sermon. As usually happens when my allergies get the best of me, talking for long periods didn’t go well. My throat got dry and when that happens, I often break out into coughing fits. Thankfully, I didn’t completely lose control and thankfully no one was within 10-15 feet of me. But I did have to cough (into my elbow) a handful of times as I nursed my water glass and a cough drop for the remainder of the sermon.

I don’t really know what to do with that experience except to say that it is certainly making me rethink the calculus of when to call in sick and what measures to have in place in case I have to do so. I’ve been clear with my church members that we will make a solid online experience available until something significant changes. I don’t want them to feel any pressure to come in person unless they feel safe and desire the in person interaction that so many of us are missing. I’ve also offered a few links to health resources so that they can stay informed and up to date as things change. We have a predominantly older congregation, which means that a lot of folks are taking me up on that offer of staying home and staying isolated as much as possible. All that is to say, anyone who comes is doing so knowing as much as anyone about the risks and realities of what they’re getting into and with options to do otherwise if they feel at all uncomfortable. Even still, a couple of folks told me after Sunday that they couldn’t help but notice and wonder every time I coughed. The level of strangeness we feel anytime we see someone cough is a very hard to measure, yet very significant source of the discomfort and uneasiness brought about by this pandemic.

But I probably don’t have Covid-19. 

Then Monday came around. It started out like any other day – I worked alone at the office for most of the day before picking up my son from daycare on the way home. Just before dinner we got an email from the daycare. The parent of a child in our son’s class tested positive for Covid-19. That child was immediately removed from the classroom that afternoon and the rooms underwent a thorough disinfecting that night. The school already had strict protocols such that parents aren’t allowed into the building at all and there is pretty much no way the parent could have infected anyone else at the school. The parent was asymptomatic at the time, as was the child. It was only by connection with another person’s positive test that the parent even decided to get tested. We don’t know if the child had the virus, but they won’t come back before a quarantine period and being cleared by a pediatrician. 

I’m grateful for all the work the school has done to keep us apprised and ensure a safe environment. They have moved mountains to adhere to every safety protocol that has been offered, and I have no doubt they’ve done everything anyone would know to do. I’m still baffled at how much the underlying philosophy of policy and response from the national level on down seems to be to push as many decisions as possible to the lowest possible level. None of us have dealt with anything like this before and none of us has as much public health information or power to make change as the higher levels of government. Only one level of our distributed system of government has the power and resources to effectively enough support those people and businesses that have to take extreme measures either to stay open or to close for the sake of public health. That level of government doesn’t seem interested in carrying the weight of any of the most impactful, gut wrenching, and long lasting choices that are being made every day. Those decisions seem to get pushed down to the lowest possible level as often as possible.

This is probably a rant for another time where I can devote more space to it, but I feel like everyday, everyone is having to make a million decisions that we’ve never thought about before. I wouldn’t advocate for a single federal law or dictum about every conceivable choice or policy, but I remain shocked that there is not a more cohesive strategy, message, guidebook, metric, checklist, or anything else to help us work through this pandemic together, rather than as 330 million individuals making 50 choices a day about topics we’re not trained to deal with that affect our lives at levels as deep as how to make a living or how to be in relationship with friends and family. Some cohesive, clear, consistent, high level guidance would be really helpful right about now. But I digress.

I still probably don’t have Covid-19. 

Last night I started looking into testing, just to be on the safe side. I started by looking into my insurance to see if they had recommendations or requirements for where to go. I have not seen any clear pricing information, except that some places take insurance, some places are free, some places charge something, and at least at the beginning some tests were quite expensive. I couldn’t find anything on the insurance website, and by the time I tried to call their business office, it was closed. 

My insurance has a deal with a nearby hospital, which is almost always the cheapest way to go for our healthcare needs. I decided to reach out to the hospital. I found a number to call from the Covid-19 page for the hospital system, which appeared very clearly to be the only number anyone should call for scheduling a Covid test with any hospital in the system. The appointment line attendant informed me that I needed to get a doctor’s referral in order to schedule a test. Fair enough.

 The hospital system has a virtual urgent care that offers a brief screening and can give the order for the test. I set up the appointment and within an hour or so had the recommendation that I go ahead and get tested. Between my (mild) symptoms and my son’s potential exposure, it was best to be safe and do so. I called back to see about scheduling, but the scheduling office was closed for the night.

 The next morning, I called shortly after the scheduling office opened to see about getting the test. They said they needed to have a doctor’s order, so I told them I had received one from a doctor last night through that same hospital’s urgent care system. She was very nice but ultimately didn’t have the order in the system and told me I could not send it in to them directly. They had to receive the order from the referring doctor’s office.

 I called the helpline of the urgent care arm of that hospital and they asked me where I wanted the order sent. I told them the hospital and location name and I had to look up the phone number. The person asked if I knew an email address because that was the most common way they connected with these hospitals. I did not have an email address. But I told him I was surprised that they didn’t have direct contact information since they were theoretically connected to the hospital with which I wanted to schedule the test (best I can tell now, the virtual urgent care is technically contracted out through a different provider somewhere on the back end). I found other random contact information that seemed to be the most helpful I could find online and offered that to him as well.

 After an hour or two, I called the hospital scheduling office back to see if they received any orders. They had not. It was confirmed once again that I cannot send any order that I received, they had to receive it directly from the doctor. So I asked exactly where they should send it. I was told that the hospital order receiving department has one fax line and that fax number is the only one that can receive orders for covid-19 testing. She gave me the number and we hung up.

 I called the urgent care helpline again, and gave them the updated information with the fax number. I was told I should check back with the hospital in an hour and hopefully they would have the order sent over by then.

 An hour and a half later, I called the scheduling office at the hospital again. They had still not received my order. This time I was told that a supervisor had instructed the whole team to forward patient information for anyone who had done the virtual urgent care system because they were having issues getting orders. She could not tell me anything further or when to check in again.

Two hours later, I called back. This time I was told that I had reached the central scheduling line for the Houston area. I needed to call the Sugarland specific number in order to schedule for that hospital location. So on my 5th call to the hospital scheduling office, I finally found out the number I apparently needed to call from the beginning. So I called that new number.

Surprisingly, this was the first time I was put on hold for any significant period of time. After being on hold for 25 minutes, I found out that the next available testing date at the hospital would be 13 days away. A 13 day wait just to get the test done… I was told if I wanted to try other locations within the same hospital system, I could do so, but would have to call each location individually and check their schedule. Luckily, I was at least able to confirm that the hospital had received the Dr’s order for me to get the test. Now, it was simply a matter of getting on the schedule. 

I tried calling another location. No tests available for 4 days. Better but not ideal. The second location gave me a third location’s scheduling phone number to try. That number simply went straight to voicemail. 

I decided to try and search for anything in my county. Wouldn’t you know it, the county has free testing available to all county residents. They have a screening questionnaire, but it appears anyone who wants/needs to do so can get tested for free. I submitted my information and kicked myself for not doing the obvious extra searches last night. Free and much closer. I felt like an idiot.

Then I realized on the confirmation screen from the county that I should expect a call as soon as possible, hopefully within 2-3 business days. If I miss that call, I need to resubmit the form data again in order to receive another call back to (hopefully) get on the schedule for who knows when. This was not the miracle solution that I thought I had found.

On a hunch, I tried the main phone number for that third location within the original hospital system. The main number led me to an operator who led me to the covid test scheduling line. I spoke with someone who apologized that there weren’t any tests available today. Tomorrow, however, was entirely open. So I scheduled a test first thing tomorrow morning and will hopefully know the results by…. soon????

It only took 3 intense web searches, 11ish phone calls, and (surprisingly only) one long hold time of 25 minutes, and I finally have a way to get tested soon (for free??? I guess we’ll find out someday).

I probably don’t have Covid-19. 

But I feel a lot worse about things getting better anytime soon than I did even two days ago. I know there are incredible logistical challenges to all of this and everyone is doing their best at the local and provider level. And I know everyone’s experience will be different based on where they live and what provider they are using. There are some places where it sounds like you can just drive through anytime and get a free test without an appointment or a wait at all. My experience thus far is not the experience of everyone, but that’s kind of my point.

If I were in charge of the country 4 months ago, I can’t imagine having worked toward anything other than a system in which everyone in the country can be tested free of charge under any circumstances, no questions asked. Maybe the test would be scheduled a day or two out and results probably would take a day or two no matter what, but it can’t be that hard to set up one central phone number (think 911) that anyone anywhere in the country could call and immediately be given a time and location at which to get a free test.

Simplifying testing wouldn’t solve everything, but if someone with as much time and know-how as me is having this much trouble just getting tested, then I can’t imagine how hard it is for people with multiple jobs; or those who can’t take half a day off to play phone tag; or people who can’t afford the risk of a surprise $100 doctor bill; or people with kids they can’t leave in order to actually go; or people who need a test so they can feel good about visiting family for the first time in months; or people who fear being fired if they play it safe and don’t go to work in the 5-10 day waiting period for test results; or any of the people in a thousand more difficult circumstances that we are.

This whole experience deeply reinforces how necessary a clear and consistent strategy is so that millions of people aren’t having to make thousands of decisions on very limited information regarding situations that may radically affect their livelihood, families, communities, and who knows what else. At the very, very least, we should all be able to get tested for the virus within a few days and without any complicated research. Without even that incredibly basic bit of knowledge, every other decision we make weighs a whole lot more than it has to and may affect our lives and loved ones more than we would ever want to consider. Unfortunately, it feels each day like we’ll have to think a lot harder about a lot more decisions for a long time. I don’t feel like I ever really know if I’m making the right decisions for myself, my family, my church, or my community. More than anything else, that makes me tired. 

And I still probably don’t have Covid-19. I suppose I’ll find out in a few days.

—————————–

*Quick update on the morning of the test

The experience to get a test scheduled was terrible. The actual testing process was about as perfectly executed as I can imagine. I showed up at my appointment time and saw signs all pointing me to an entrance specifically designated for Covid-19 testing. Someone opened the door, asked if I had an appointment for my test, and directed me to a seat. A woman asked my name, which got me checked in. I was the only person in a large hallway area and there were 5 or so seats available for those who came to be tested (all well over 6ft apart). 

A technician came out quickly and had me come back to a room that clearly had all sorts of extra equipment and air circulators to keep everyone safe. I went to the area I was told and the technician asked me a couple of quick questions. There was a contraption in the room that looked sort of like a big plastic box with two arm holes that led to something like full arm gloves. I assume that’s used for any patients who are highly symptomatic or probably infected. 

She then did the nasal swab to the back of the nose that you’ve probably heard about. It was a very weird feeling. Sort of like my brain was tickled, but more like when I really need to sneeze, but the feeling is deep down in my nostrils and won’t come out. Almost like the moment when I inhale something like pepper and desperately want to sneeze, but can’t quite do it for 5-10 seconds. It wasn’t exactly painful, but certainly not painless. To be clear, it was absolutely worth it and way less painful than the weight of constantly wondering whether I might be putting others in danger by leaving the house for any reason. 

All told, I was driving away 10 minutes after I parked. I should have results available through the online patient portal within 24hrs. And now we wait. 

—————–

Update 2

As promised, the results came back within 24hrs. I officially don’t have Covid-19!


Update 3

8 days later, I got the call back about scheduling a test with the county.

One thought on “A Covid Chronicle

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