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Do I Have Coronavirus? I'll Never Know

I have a suspicious set of symptoms and tested negative for the flu, but people in my situation still don’t qualify for COVID-19 screening.
14 March 2020, 6:28am
coronavirus surgical mask
Photo courtesy Katie Way.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

I washed my hands, frequently even. I touched my face less. I went to a birthday party at a bar on Saturday night and had several conversations with friendly acquaintances that were like, “This shit is kind of crazy. Should we be here?” We probably shouldn’t have! Because now I’m vaguely under the weather, with flu-like symptoms and a negative flu test, and no idea whether or not I have the novel coronavirus.

On Tuesday, I woke up feeling woozy, with a hacking cough, a fever, and an aching feeling in my knees and my back. I figured I could tough it out, working from home. I took two DayQuil liquicaps. But after my editor saw how Visibly Unwell I was during a video-call-in-lieu-of-meeting, I took a half–sick day at her suggestion. I slept fitfully for six hours, shivered through a shower, and took my temperature with a drugstore thermometer. The drugstore thermometer told me I had a 102.2 degree fever. My mom told me to go to urgent care. My roommate agreed, looked up the nearest facility that took my insurance, and went with me.

In the CityMD waiting room, I requested a face mask to comply with signs asking for patients with a cough and/or fever to put one on. When I did, it didn’t feel right, and it turns out it wasn’t: I’d put it on upside down, a mistake I corrected after Googling on a hunch.

Despite being a social smoker, working in a building where someone potentially came into contact with COVID-19, and exhibiting many of the known symptoms, I did not qualify for a coronavirus screening test. By the time a physician took my temperature at urgent care, my fever dropped down to 99.5 degrees. When my flu test came back negative, I was “diagnosed” with bronchitis, on the grounds of… Having a cough? Sheer process of elimination? The inability to test me for COVID-19? The physician I spoke to didn’t elaborate. I was prescribed Prednisone, a steroid that should reduce inflammation (if I have inflammation), and a round of antibiotics that I don’t plan on taking. I was also prescribed Tamiflu by my primary care provider (thanks, telemedicine!) for the flu I did not test positive for.

And then I was charged a $50 copay and sent on my merry way into the warm night.

Log on to Twitter or Facebook and you’ll find people sharing their version of the same story, about themselves or someone they love—stories of partners, coworkers, friends, and relatives who fit the basic profile of a coronavirus patient, but somehow don’t meet testing qualifications. It’s a stark lesson in the concrete limits of personal responsibility. The truth is, we’re dealing with a cavernous unknown, and we’re essentially armed with… hand sanitizer and Twitter threads.

Generally speaking, I’m fine at the moment. Being sick sucks, but I’ve been sicker. I’m drinking water and rewatching The Sopranos. Today, I woke up without a fever for the first time since I started showing symptoms on Tuesday. I’ve got nasal congestion, which doesn’t seem to line up with what we’re being told the COVID-19 symptoms are. Plus, my cough is wet as hell. That’s a good sign, right?

In absence of a diagnosis, I’m still taking precautions. I canceled a brunch and rescheduled a pottery class—woe is me!—because I’m pretty sure Eggs Benedict and a literal ancient art form will still exist once my symptoms are gone. But I’m still going for walks outside, although I’m trying to stick to streets that are relatively empty. I texted my friend who’s in med school, who told me “No, I won’t mince words: You should by the book absolutely be quarantined.” I’m staying in this weekend! On Wednesday, I walked up to the roof of my apartment to see if it made me fatigued and held my breath for 10 seconds even though I knew that advice from “Stanford University” was fake as hell, and I felt... fine. Or, like, as bad as I normally do when I go up a few flights of stairs. I just don’t have anything better to go by, because there is no actual test available for me to take.

Should I have lied and said I'd traveled to Italy, or had a close encounter with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 in order to clear myself for sure? Should I have said I was a professional athlete? It feels impossible to ethically navigate a healthcare system where moral dilemmas that should be decided at a level above our personal choices are dropped squarely in our laps in lieu of a functional social safety net.

Obviously I don’t want to have coronavirus. But I would like to know if I can go to the grocery store without worrying about viral shedding or coughing on someone who’s immunocompromised. I don’t want to kill an elderly person! I don’t want to endanger the people I live alongside! I am desperate to flatten the curve! I’m fortunate to have an employer that has already shifted everyone to working from home, but our healthcare infrastructure hasn’t provided for me to be able to get care and testing that’s accessible without endangering other people.

I worry about being a jackass when I ask my roommates to limit who they invite into our apartment, and I’m worried I’m not being enough of a jackass when they bring guests anyway. I feel certain I can’t actually have the coronavirus, because I’ve been working from home since last week, and I followed directions, and my nose is runny (a “rarely occurring” symptom, according to the World Health Organization). And then I feel like it can’t be more obvious that I have it when I lose my breath laughing at my boyfriend’s Robert DeNiro impression.

I’m scared that when I feel like I’ve recovered, I’ll move about the world like I’ve already had COVID-19 and then I’ll contract it for real. But most importantly, I’m worried because I know millions of other Americans are cycling through the same worries and playing the same stupid, fucked-up guessing game in a vacuum of leadership, guidance, and adequate support.

I’m in a position to work from home and self-quarantine as necessary. Most of the people who share my concerns aren’t nearly as lucky as I am.

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