OPINION: How sick is this? Even a feverish doctor can’t get COVID test

As the novel coronavirus spreads, and the true number of people infected remains a wild guess, you’d think that a primary care physician who was pretty certain he had the illness would warrant a test.

Dr. Zachary Cohen is the kind of guy who won’t take no for an answer. But that’s what he got when he repeatedly asked to be tested for the virus: No.

The story has become almost routine as the U.S. has lagged far behind other developed countries in being able to ascertain just who has COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Testing allows health care professionals to quarantine people to keep them from spreading it, and then determine who those people have been in contact with. You know, flatten the curve.

This week, my colleague Scott Trubey wrote about how far away we are from doing that: “A shortage of kits and testing supplies nationally means rationing of coronavirus tests is likely to continue in Georgia, and state officials do not know when broader testing of the public will be possible.”

Also, that’s especially vital to know if you’re a doctor because you could have been infecting others. We must test doctors and get them back on the front lines.

This is a war, after all.

Cohen, who lives in DeKalb County, worked at a large local medical system and left in late February to change jobs. In the meantime, he took a one-month gig with a doc-in-the-box in Gainesville and was on the medical conveyor belt attending to 15 to 18 patients a day.

“There was a lot of flu, a lot of strep throats, a lot of colds and what I called ‘Not Flu,’ ” he said in an interview, referring to those who tested negative for the flu but suffered variations of body aches, fevers, coughs and pneumonia. He now believes some of those patients had COVID-19.

There wasn’t enough personal protective equipment, but at the time he wasn’t worried. “After all, we were still being told COVID19 was a milder flu-like syndrome and will pass soon,” he wrote in a Facebook post that caught my attention. “We were told that it might not even affect our communities.”

Then, two weeks into it, he got sick.

At first, he thought it was seasonal allergies — a scratchy throat, sneezing, a mild cough. Still, he called in to work to say he’d better stay home.

Then he got worse.

Cohen had a sore throat, headaches, body aches, body chills, a 102 fever, congestion, shortness of breath, and coughing attacks so extreme that he saw stars and frantically gasped for air, worrying he’d never take another breath.

“There were some scary moments,” he told me.

This had to be COVID-19, he figured. “This was just different,” he told me, “the timing of the symptoms, how they went in and out, how long it hung on. It was the worst upper respiratory illness I’ve had in my life.”

Cohen is no geezer with pre-existing conditions. He’s a non-smoking, fit, 34-year-old hockey player.

Naturally, he figured he should find out if he had what was increasingly becoming a shared worry. Being a doctor, he thought he’d qualify for a test.

First, he called “a large academic hospital system in Atlanta where I receive my primary care,” but the triage nurse said they were only testing severely ill patients or their employees.

The nurse told him to call a lab preferred by his insurance. But no luck there.

Cohen called a second lab suggested by a friend. Again, no.

He called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, waited on hold for an hour and was told to call the Georgia Department of Public Health.

When he finally got someone at DPH, he was told, “Call your doctor.”

“So, three days later I was right back where I started,” he said.

The circle of frustration remained unbroken. Again, this was a primary care physician getting bounced around like he was trying to get his cable fixed. Some asked if he was on chemo or taking immunosuppressive drugs. Others didn’t even ask those questions.

Cohen’s daughter, who is not yet 2, was sick for two days with a fever and cough. She’s OK now. A relative staying at his home had the same symptoms as he — or worse. Both are on the mend. It has been 12 days and he’s still listless and coughing.

But his wife suffered no symptoms. They were all hunkered down together, he said, “so there’s no way she wasn’t exposed. It’s just so variable.”

There is an untold number of Americans out there who have contracted the virus. Carlos del Rio, an epidemiologist who chairs the Department of Global Health at Emory, this week estimated there might be 10 undocumented cases of COVID-19 for every one documented. Or maybe 20. Who knows?

As of Thursday afternoon, there were nearly 9,000 tests performed in Georgia. As of Thursday night, nearly one-fifth of that number turned out to be cases of COVID-19.

But there remains a great unknown, Cohen said — folks who might’ve had the disease but were never tested. “Some people die at home, others weren’t ever that bad, others got sick and then got better, none of them will be counted.”

AJC COMPLETE COVERAGE: CORONAVIRUS IN GEORGIA

He’s grateful his family all came out of it. They will continue to quarantine.

He plans to return to doctoring in a new job. This time he’ll have “new and improved one micron washable face masks” and no more long beard.

On Thursday he had a pre-employment physical and — finally — got swabbed for COVID-19. He hopes it comes back positive. “I’d love to be done with it and immune if possible,” he said.

What are his takeaways from this?

He said to go to his Facebook post for that. He couldn’t say it any better than he wrote it.

“Take this (crap) seriously, it’s no joke. … Don’t hoard necessary products. Learn the signs and symptoms of severe respiratory distress, and seek emergent care if you experience those symptoms. Otherwise, learn which (over-the-counter drugs) can help manage common symptoms of viral URIS. And for God’s sake — #staytheeffhome if you are experiencing upper respiratory symptoms. I caught this from someone, but I made as sure as possible that I didn’t give it to anyone else.”

And finally.

“We can beat this thing, but it will take an individual effort from each and every one of us. I believe in us!!!”

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