On Wednesday, the CDC announced new guidelines for coronavirus testing in the U.S.: Doctors can now approve testing at their discretion and are no longer limited to recommending it for patients who’d traveled out of the country or been exposed to a known case.
But as of Friday, the Florida Department of Health continues to follow stricter testing guidelines: Only patients who have fevers and have traveled to countries with widespread coronavirus outbreaks are eligible.
That's leaving some respiratory infection patients anxious, including one Jacksonville woman, a recent arrival from the Pacific Northwest who fears she may have been exposed.
Melissa, 48, said her throat began hurting badly five days ago, and she’s since been diagnosed with a viral respiratory infection after a worsening cough and vomiting brought her to Memorial Hospital two nights in a row this week.
As four cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Florida since the weekend — three in the Tampa Bay area and one in Santa Rosa County — state public health officials have been telling people to call their local health department and their doctor if they’ve traveled to an area with confirmed coronavirus cases and are showing symptoms.
According to public health officials, the only ways to contract COVID-19 are from someone who has it or by touching a infected surface. Known symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath, which the CDC believes would typically appear 2-to-14 days after exposure, based on how other viruses behave.
Melissa, who asked that her last name be withheld, said although Memorial Hospital told her it cannot rule out COVID-19, two separate emergency room doctors told her she didn’t qualify for a test because she hadn't traveled out of the country. When she called the Duval Health Department, someone told her she would not be eligible for a test unless she takes a turn for the worse and is hospitalized.
“Why wait until someone is seriously ill to get this test?” Melissa said. “Let’s get it diagnosed before it can get to that worse level,” she said in an interview with WJCT News.
She said the local health department also told her no test could be administered until a doctor had already ruled out flu (they had in her case) and performed a complete respiratory panel that tested for dental infections and other coronaviruses. When she asked where she could get a test for the novel coronavirus, the person on the phone said she could not recommend any providers.
“The last thing I want to do is criticize any government officials,” Melissa said. “I understand that this is a new virus and that, you know, protocols are being established on how to deal with it.”
But her symptoms have only worsened, she said, and she doesn’t want to have to get pneumonia before she has a definitive diagnosis. Being denied approval for testing has left her frustrated, concerned and anxious. Doctors advised her to stay home as much as possible and to cover her mouth while going out.
“But I still have to go get groceries,” she said, adding that she lives in an apartment complex and knows of at least one neighbor who has had similar symptoms.
Melissa said she had been living in a suburb of Portland, Oregon, and traveling into Washington state weekly for work, until she made the cross-country move to Florida in late January.
Forty-four cases of the novel coronavirus have been confirmed in Washington, and at least 10 patients had died as of Wednesday. Oregon confirmed its first two cases this week. Melissa said she also drove through several states with confirmed cases on her way to Florida, including California, with 51 cases, and Texas, with 11.
In response to WJCT News’ questions about testing protocols, Memorial Hospital Chief of Emergency Medicine Frederick Jenkins sent this statement: “Memorial Hospital is following CDC guidelines and testing appropriate patients in collaboration with the Department of Health.”
Several questions sent to the Duval County Health Department, about who is eligible to get a coronavirus test and where tests are available, are answered here.
A state Health Department spokesman referred WJCT News to the Florida Health Department’s coronavirus webpage.
Those at highest health risk are the elderly and immunosuppressed. Public health authorities say the best protection right now is to wash your hands frequently — and avoid touching your face.
Updated 3/6/20: This story was updated to clarify that Florida's guidelines for testing are more restrictive than the CDC's guidance.
Updated 3/12/20 after a response was received from the health department.