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Coronavirus Testing Debacle: Here’s What Went Wrong in New Jersey

Despite the opening of testing sites across the state, New Jersey residents say there has been a confounding lack of coronavirus testing in hospitals, doctors’ offices, urgent care centers and FEMA sites. Even when people exhibited clear symptoms of COVID-19, they still were denied tests.

by Matthew Stanmyre and Rebecca Everett, NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J. / March 30, 2020
(TNS) - Battling fatigue, chills and a severe cough, Chris Dunlap spent an entire day either on hold or calling state hotlines that rang and rang, searching for a way to be tested for the coronavirus.

Melissa Lambert said she and her daughter both were denied COVID-19 tests at a hospital, despite having textbook symptoms like fever, shortness of breath and chest pain.

And Susan Smith and her fianc\u00e9 were sick for weeks and had their doctors request tests, only to receive calls from a pair of labs saying they wouldn’t test them because they didn’t meet federal criteria.

Despite the opening of testing sites across the state, New Jersey residents say there has been a confounding lack of coronavirus testing in hospitals, doctors’ offices, urgent care centers and Federal Emergency Management Agency sites. Even when people exhibited clear symptoms of COVID-19, they still were denied tests, more than a half-dozen people told NJ Advance Media.

Their stories offer a snapshot of how the state failed to make testing accessible for many in the month since the novel virus invaded New Jersey.

And with hundreds of symptomatic people being turned away, many fear the lack of testing has hindered — and possibly undermined — the state’s ability to comprehend the full scope of the epidemic.

“How is the government planning on getting the proper numbers if they’re not testing people with symptoms?” said Lambert, who lives in Sparta. “How do they know who has it?”

The official figures reported each day are likely just a fraction of the total cases, given the limited testing in the state and across the country, experts say. They blame strict criteria and a shortage of test kits.

“The tests that we need are just not here,” said Judith Lightfoot, chief of infectious disease at Rowan University. “We’re just not testing the numbers. You’ve seen the number of tests Italy has done, what Spain has done, what other countries have done.

"We’re not doing that amount of testing. We just aren’t.”

Positive coronavirus cases in New Jersey surged to 13,386 Sunday, the second-highest total of any state in the country, with 161 deaths. Restricted by kit availability and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention criteria, the number of tests being administered each day is climbing, but failing to keep up with demand, residents and health experts say.

It has prevented officials from viewing the full picture of the outbreak.

“We were not prepared for this,” Lightfoot said. “We are way behind, and we’re playing catch up.”
‘Impossible to get tested’

Laboratories have administered at least 29,822 coronavirus tests since the outbreak started, with a positive rate of 35%, Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said Saturday.

Persichilli and Gov. Phil Murphy have acknowledged the need for expanded testing. But they also said the state must continue to prioritize tests for the sickest or highest-risk individuals.

New Jersey ranks 19th in the country in per capita testing, but Murphy dismissed the metric, saying the state has been one of the most diligent in the U.S. for COVID-19 testing.

“I’ll put our aggressive testing of symptomatic individuals up against any other place in the country, if not this world,” Murphy said Friday during a media briefing in Trenton.

In an interview March 17, Persichilli said there’s a difference between really needing the test and wanting the test. “I don’t believe anyone who needs the test is not getting it,” she said.

But residents who have tried to get tested are telling another story.

Dunlap, 36, said a day after his symptoms began, he had a virtual appointment with his doctor, who told him the office didn’t have any coronavirus tests and directed him to the state hotline. Dunlap, who lives in Cranford, called New Jersey 211, the state’s 800 number for coronavirus information and the Union County Health Department.

“I tried all of them,” he said. “It just rang.”

After a day on the phone, he gave up.

“From a public health standpoint, the officials can’t make decisions if a 10th of the cases are actually on the books,” said Dunlap, who believes he had COVID-19. “It’s definitely anxiety producing.”

Meanwhile, last weekend, Suzanne Pirozzi-Toro, who lives in Cliffwood Beach, said her 22-year-old daughter woke up with a dry cough, chills, body aches and a fever over 100 degrees. They tried to get her tested by her primary care physician and at Bayshore Medical Center in Holmdel, but Pirozzi-Toro said both places would not give them a test.

“It’s impossible to get tested,” Pirozzi-Toro said. “It’s just like they don’t want you there.”

Smith, of Cherry Hill, was eventually able to get tested at Cooper University Hospital on March 16, and her results were negative. But her fianc\u00e9 was never able to get tested, even though his doctor ordered the test for him.

“The lab called back and asked if he’d been out of the country or in contact with a confirmed or suspected case,” she said.

Since the answer was no, he wasn’t tested.

“She said, ‘Call the Department of Health. It’s their criteria,'" Smith said.
Overwhelming demand

The Department of Health relies on CDC guidelines, which recommend doctors prioritize testing for people who are hospitalized, have health problems or other risk factors, or have traveled or had contact with a person with COVID-19.

Private labs aren’t bound by the criteria, but residents who contacted NJ Advance Media say doctors still tell them they are limited by CDC guidelines.

Jeff Marsh, 35, has been trying to get tested at medical facilities in Morris County since March 9 after experiencing a fever, aches and chest tightness. He was isolating in a room, trying not to get his pregnant wife sick, while getting “the runaround," he said.

“The physician says to call the ER, and they are the only place testing. The ER says they don’t have it and won’t test me if I come in, and only will test [someone in] extreme distress,” Marsh said March 17, nine days after his fever first started. “The ER says to call the hotline. The hotline number is always busy and never works. The health department doesn’t answer.”

Peter Root, 58, of Pennsville, took his 62-year-old husband to the ER on March 14 because he had a fever, cough, shortness of breath and diarrhea. Flu tests came back negative, and the doctor diagnosed him with an upper respiratory tract infection and sent him home without a test.
Root said he was told, “We don’t have that.”

“You don’t get diarrhea from an upper respiratory tract infection,” he said. “In the beginning you’re hearing testing is key — and then you can’t get a test.”

More hospitals are testing now, and drive-thru testing sites have been set up, but the demand remains overwhelming.

The FEMA testing sites at Bergen Community College and PNC Bank Arts Center in Monmouth County have reached capacity before they even opened their doors, turning away lines of cars stretching for miles.

Essex and Burlington counties have set up testing sites, but limited appointments to 100 or 180 a day. And officials in Camden County on Thursday said an otherwise-ready drive-thru testing site at Camden County College is still at least three weeks from opening because they can’t get testing kits.
Testing supplies even at commercial labs remain in short supply.

“We’re literally turning away hundreds of people,” said William Schuler of Immediate Care, which has seven urgent care sites in New Jersey.

Lightfoot said the lines at the FEMA testing sites alone are evidence that not enough testing is available. And until widespread testing occurs, the true scope of the pandemic in New Jersey will remain unknown.

“For all the citizens we have, there are more people trying to get tested than we can handle,” Lightfoot said. “It’s a big problem.”

Matthew Stanmyre may be reached at mstanmyre@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MattStanmyre. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

Rebecca Everett may be reached at reverett@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @RebeccaJEverett. Find NJ.com on Facebook.
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