Test Fail

Nathaniel Sawyer, who lives in Marina with his wife and their roommate, a man in his 60s, says he wants to protect others.

In early March, Nathaniel Sawyer was feeling “rough,” to his word. A week later, it got worse. “I started having headaches, a high fever and I was feeling fatigued,” he says. “For an hour, I’d feel great and then for an hour I’d go back to feeling terrible.” He suspected he might be infected with Covid-19.

Sawyer is a student at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies in Monterey, one of the educational institutions the Monterey County Health Department contacted in January knowing that a number of faculty and students had been traveling internationally, including to China where the virus originated. MIIS was one of the first schools to close classrooms and switch to online learning.

For the first six days of the illness, Sawyer tried toughing it out. He took over-the-counter medications hoping to beat it. He tried to be seen at an urgent care clinic, but a long wait – an estimated five hours that increased to eight, he says – deterred him and he left before being seen.

Within a few days, after a stretch of feeling better, Sawyer says it worsened again. “I started feeling terrible, like someone hit me with a car,” he says. “Every time I’d breathe, I was coughing. I had an earache and bad pain.” As an athletic 26-year-old who’s generally in good health, he decided it was time to take action. He called Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, described his symptoms over the phone and says he was instructed to come in after being told, “It sounds like coronavirus.”

Sawyer says he just wanted to know if he had the virus so he could protect others. Instead, he left the screening tent outside of the CHOMP emergency department angry and frustrated. His fever that day was 99.9 degrees; a doctor told him it didn’t exceed the 100-degree threshold to recommend testing for Covid-19.

Montage, of which CHOMP is a part, says the critera to collect a sample for Covid-19 testing includes a fever of 100 degrees or more. “While hospitals would love to do more testing, limited testing labs and tests available make it important for tests to be reserved for the highest risk and cases that would require hospitalization,” the statement reads. “We hope that testing in the community can be expanded soon.”

A health advisory issued on March 9 by Monterey County Health Officer Edward Moreno states that “due to the limited number of tests available,” the county will only test those patients who meet certain criteria. Those criteria include: fever or shortness of breath combined with exposure to someone with a confirmed case; symptoms requiring hospitalization and recent travel to specific regions; or, severe acute respiratory illness with pneumonia confirmed by an X-ray. Health Department spokesperson Karen Smith says the county lab is prioritizing people who’ve been hospitalized.

In the last week, commercial labs have come online to perform tests as ordered by a physician. Those labs don’t report how many tests they’ve performed. Smith says she’s not aware of any positive tests that have come from private labs.

As of March 24, the county’s lab reported testing 335 people, with 20 testing positive for Covid-19. The county had enough materials to test 600 to 800 patients and continues to acquire more tests.

A week after his non-test at CHOMP, Sawyer says he’s still feeling ill. “I’m going to stay inside until I feel better and until life goes back to normal because I care about society,” he says. “But I personally feel let down by our health system.”

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