She had pneumonia, a fever and a dry cough — and still couldn’t get tested for coronavirus

“I’m really frustrated with our whole system,” said Laura Koch, who remains quarantined at her Uptown apartment.

SHARE She had pneumonia, a fever and a dry cough — and still couldn’t get tested for coronavirus

Laura Koch, of Uptown, displayed many symptoms of the coronavirus this month but was never given a test.

Provided photo

Laura Koch was enjoying a show at the Chicago Theater earlier this month when a cough that started earlier in the day got worse and she developed a fever.

She left at intermission, and by the following day she developed more symptoms consistent with the coronavirus, including shortness of breath and vomiting.

Though she’s tried repeatedly to get tested for COVID-19, her efforts have proved fruitless.

For nearly 10 days, city and state officials, emergency room doctors and even her personal physician have rebuffed her requests. Despite being diagnosed with pneumonia — which can be caused by the novel coronavirus — Koch didn’t meet the state’s threshold for testing because she hadn’t come into contact with a person that tested positive or traveled to a hotbed for the disease, like China or Italy.

“I’m really frustrated with our whole system,” said Koch, a sales trainer for a food service company who remains self-quarantined in her Uptown apartment. “We hear that all these tests are available, but they’re obviously not.”

Koch isn’t the only person who has been shut down while seeking a test for COVID-19, which had sickened at least 105 in Illinois as of Monday. While federal authorities have repeatedly promised that wide-ranging testing would soon be available, more Americans are left waiting as the number of confirmed cases continues to rise nationwide.

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Dr. Robert Murphy, director of the Global Institute for Public Health at Northwestern University, said anyone that’s even exhibiting “minor symptoms” should already be getting tested — but mistakes at the federal level in not ramping up testing sooner have limited capacity, leading to the severe restrictions. Now, to make more tests available, it’s not as easy as simply “flipping a switch,” he said.

“I think that the [Trump] administration and the running of this whole process has been really abysmal,” said Murphy.

‘Precious time has been lost’

Members of Donald Trump’s administration on Sunday said the expansion of drive-through testing and the addition of more commercial labs would vastly increase the capabilities for coronavirus testing. Vice President Mike Pence, who’s leading Trump’s coronavirus task force, noted that new commercial tests that were approved by the Food and Drug Administration would aid that process.

As of Sunday, only 84 public labs across the country were conducting tests for the coronavirus, according to the CDC. However, Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giror said the country is now “entering a new phase of testing” during a White House press briefing on Monday.


Medical workers test a patient for the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, at a drive-thru testing facility in San Francisco, California on March 12, 2020.


Giror, who is serving as Trump’s testing czar, said a million tests were currently available across the country, primarily at commercial labs. Those tests are complete with reagents, which are essential for preparing diagnostic kits and are also in short supply.

Nearly 2 million tests will be added this week, said Giror, with 2 million more becoming available next week and another 5 million the following week. Pence noted that he had outlined the new testing plans with Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the nation’s governors during a call earlier in the day.

But Pritzker was skeptical and laid into the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus outbreak during his own press conference Monday.

“We need the federal government to lead, follow or get out of the way,” Pritzker said before urging the FDA to approve COVID-19 tests that have already been approved in Europe and Asia. “Precious time has been lost because the White House made some bad decisions early on, which led to the current low levels of testing across the United States.”

Pritzker told reporters that three state-run labs and 15 hospitals are currently “ramping up testing to the levels that are necessary for us to better understand the presence and patterns of the spread of the virus in Illinois.” Still, only 1,143 people in Illinois had been tested for coronavirus by Monday, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Pritzker did acknowledge that a move by federal authorities to allow hospitals and research facilities to develop their own tests has expanded the state’s capability to test for the virus.

Experts skeptical

Murphy is also skeptical of the message coming from the Trump administration.

“You can’t believe anything these people are saying,” said Murphy. “Not that they’re lying, but they don’t know what they’re talking about. There’s a whole chain of events that has to occur before it’s going to affect a person in the public who has a respiratory tract infection.”

First, Murphy said, the patient “has to know who to call.” Then, a health care provider needs to have a relationship with a lab that does testing and access to specimen collection tubes. On top of that, the provider needs to have a person who knows how to collect the specimen.

And other supply chain issues could affect a provider’s capacity to take and prepare a sample for testing. That’s because there’s also a shortage of the N95 respirator masks that filter out 95% of airborne particles, as well as a reagent used to extract DNA from testing swabs.

‘This will spread throughout our community’

A day after leaving the show early, Koch went to an urgent care center March 8 and was diagnosed with pneumonia after vomiting and experiencing a fever, dry cough and shortness of breath.

When things got worse later that day, she wound up at the emergency room at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where she was diagnosed with an “unidentified viral infection” and given fluids and ibuprofen to treat nausea and the 102-degree fever she was running. She was discharged once the fever was brought down and told to use honey as a cough suppressant.

Northwestern officials did not respond to a request for comment.

The following day, she went to her clinician after her cough had become so painful she felt like she was suffocating.

Koch said she was told she wasn’t given a COVID-19 test because she didn’t meet the IDPH’s standards for coronavirus testing. In addition to symptoms, patients qualify for testing by making contact with a COVID-19 patient within 14 days of displaying symptoms; traveling to an area hit hard by the disease within 14 days of onset; living or working at a shared housing or health care facility; having a high-risk of infection; being hospitalized; or raising other public health concerns.

If patients don’t meet the criteria, health care providers can still “proceed with testing at a commercial or clinical laboratory,” according to the IDPH.

On Monday, IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike urged Illinois residents who suspect they may have the virus to seek medical care “responsibly,” first by calling a medical provider.

“Not everyone needs to be tested for COVID-19,” she said.

But Koch said “it’s insane” that she hasn’t been able to get a test.

“This will spread throughout our community because we don’t have the knowledge to know if we are sick or not,” she predicted. “I’ve lost hope on getting a test.”

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