I was exposed to COVID-19 and couldn’t get tested for 16 days

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

Saturday morning was filled with sorrowful tears as I sat in my stuffy, three-bedroom apartment pleading with a doctor to refer me for a test. 

After the video call — which lasted all of 10 minutes — two weeks of anger, frustration and confusion rushed over me. 

On July 1, I was notified by a friend, and later the state health department, that I came into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Within two hours, I zoomed down U.S. Route 33 toward Athens, Ohio and away from my parents’ house in downtown Columbus. A two-week stock of groceries in tow, I was going to carry out my mandated quarantine in my dormant college apartment. 

I spoke to a family doctor that night and explained the situation — that I only had a brief, non-socially distanced encounter with this person, while at a friends’ house. 

He did not recommend I get tested. 

The doctor’s reasoning was two-fold: It was potentially too early for a test to accurately detect the virus, and I was not experiencing any symptoms. This made sense. I knew there was a shortage of available tests, and, symptomatic or not, I had to hunker down for the next few weeks.  

According to a report from Harvard Medical School, which has been a leader in COVID-19 research, the nasal swab or saliva test produces a false negative 100% of the time on the day of exposure, about 40% when tested four days after exposure, and about 20% when tested three days after symptoms develop. 

The next day, July 2, I was contacted by a representative of the Athens County Health Department. I was instructed to record twice-daily temperature checks, changes in symptoms and any medications I took.

A few days into my daily conversations with the health department, I asked the representative if I could be referred for a test before I went back to Columbus. The representative chastised me for considering returning home and plainly said the test was inaccurate and could produce false results. After hanging up, I feverishly searched for nearby testing locations, all of which were backlogged and booked-up. 

Seven days into my prescribed 14-day quarantine, I was symptom and fever free. I’d had a tinge of a headache and sore throat, which my doctor attributed to my chronic migraine and sinus problems. I wasn’t fatigued, or aching; I could do reps of jumping jacks in my 100-square-foot living room with ease. However, every sniffle and irregular heartbeat was anxiety producing, and sent me frantically searching for COVID-19 testing sites. Each relentless search turned up empty. 

On the 13th day, I set up another telehealth visit with a primary care physician. Again, the doctor touted the company line: “You could be negative today and positive tomorrow.” 

For the third time, I was denied a test. 

Gov. Mike DeWine and other top Ohio officials push the narrative that anyone can get tested and that testing is readily available and revving up. However, that was not my experience. 

In talking with friends who were also quarantined, only two were able to get tested immediately after being informed by the health department that they were exposed to coronavirus. 

One friend, who lives at her boyfriend’s house, was advised to quarantine. Her boyfriend, however, was not; he continued to work outside the home and was not tested. Another friend, who returned from Spain in March and became violently ill, tested negative and pleaded with the health department to test her for COVID-19 antibodies. She was told the antibody test was too unreliable. 

Many friends who were in contact with people who later tested positive were never contacted by the health department and were unaware of their potential exposure until rumors circulated the metaphorical grapevine. 

As a 21-year-old rising college senior, I fall into the age group with a skyrocketing number of cases attributed to the reopening of bars and restaurants. I admit I felt invincible against COVID-19, and I admit that my decision to disregard social-distancing and risk-management practices was ill-fated and risky. However, I felt vilified and invalidated by medical professionals. My doctors were condescending, and health department officials were unsympathetic to my concerns. 

Finally, 16 days after my initial exposure, I was able to get tested by appointment at an Urgent Care in Columbus without a doctors’ referral or self-assessment of my symptoms. It was the last available 15-minute slot, and I paid with insurance. It will take another five to seven days to receive my test results. Until then, I will not feel comfortable reentering society.

Medical professionals emphasize that COVID-19 can be spread through asymptomatic carriers. As someone without symptoms but with known exposure, how can I be sure that I will not infect someone else? While I am not at-risk, the health department felt I was “susceptible” enough to be monitored for a week-and-a-half, so why couldn’t I be tested? 

It is unrealistic for government officials to expect people to quarantine for 14 days every time they are exposed to COVID-19 without adequate and effective testing. It is unrealistic to expect people to live with the crippling and debilitating anxiety of not knowing whether or not you are sick. It is unrealistic for employees to feel safe returning to work without knowing if they could become symptomatic or not. 

But it is especially unrealistic for our state government to assume that we can slow the spread of this virus with our current diminutive and futile testing.