Editor’s Note: Mark Maxwell is the Nexstar Capitol Bureau Chief covering the statehouse for our sister stations in Illinois. He shared his story of dealing with sickness and requesting a coronavirus test.
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — When I started coughing at work on Thursday during filming, my mind immediately retraced my steps to a packed room in Niles, Illinois, where I had met 75 Vietnam veterans at a campaign stop just two days prior. Was it possible that I had come down with COVID-19? And if so, had I put the men in that room — our nation’s heroes — at risk?
Wednesday morning, the day before the cough came, I woke up tired, but attributed the exhaustion to a heavier-than-normal work schedule in the week leading up to a presidential primary election, an election chock full of pivotal and decisive contests. I prescribed myself a jolt of five shots of espresso, and went on with my day, not once considering that haze of fatigue was one of several symptoms of the Coronavirus. When I started feeling chills later that day, I put on a jacket and complained to myself about the cold temperatures.
The NBA had not yet halted its season. Neither had any of the other professional sports leagues. March Madness was still on. Casinos were still taking bets. In fact, I had just visited one two days before on Monday to cover the state’s highly anticipated launch of a new era of legal sports betting.
On that day, billionaire Neil Bluhm, whose Rivers Casino casino was cutting a ribbon for his prized new sportsbook, reminded an audience of more than 100 people that fear-induced tremors in the stock market were nothing new, and that our nation and our economy would quickly recover from the slide on The Street.
Four days later, the number of confirmed cases of the Coronavirus in Illinois had more than quadrupled, jumping from 11 up to 46. Confirmed cases reported across the country numbered in the thousands, and public health officials had shifted from a focus of containing the virus to slowing its inevitable spread. President Trump had declared a national emergency. Governors across the country had shuttered public and private schools. Panicked parents made a run on grocery stores, wiping shelves clean. The stock markets tumbled farther than at any time in the last 33 years. Bluhm’s casino closed its doors.
Even Tom Hanks, the beloved actor and household name, tested positive for the Coronavirus with his wife while they were in Australia.
Hanks described his symptoms. He and his wife, “felt a bit tired.” She “had some chills that came and went. Slight fevers too.” Yet, despite reporting seemingly mild symptoms, they both had tested positive.
Then, I coughed a second time. This time, the cameras were rolling, and I knew my producer had noticed. I realized I had to leave work and call a doctor. We wiped down our equipment with sanitizing wipes. I notified my boss, and called the Sangamon County Public Health Department for instructions. They told me to call the doctor’s office in advance to let them know I’d be coming in. They presented me with a medical facemask upon my arrival.
My symptoms were mild, never severe. But considering my recent and frequent travel to large crowds of people in Chicago, wouldn’t public health officials want to know for sure if I had contracted it? Wouldn’t the first few days be invaluable in their efforts to monitor and track for a possible transmission of the virus? Of course, they assured me. But first, I would have to go through some preliminary tests.
The Sangamon County Public Health Department referred me to visit a doctor to undergo a battery of tests for the flu, pneumonia, and other respiratory illnesses. Only after they had ruled those possibilities out could I qualify for a COVID-19 test, they said.
Four days prior, Governor J.B. Pritzker had announced a test lab was opening up in the city of Springfield, and he said 15 hospitals around the state would also start testing patients who were showing “flu-like symptoms.” Local public officials had given the indication that a person showing the symptoms I had could be tested. That would not prove to be the case.
To date, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health’s website, the state of Illinois has only tested 444 patients. 46 have tested positive. 82 tests are pending. The number of patients who have requested tests are unknown. The number who have been rejected is also unknown.
Current guidance from IDPH limits healthcare professionals testing to patients who have some symptoms, and had close contact with known, lab confirmed cases, or had recently traveled to China, South Korea, Iran, Europe, or Japan, or showed some other high risk indicator.
The doctor came back into the room to tell me my flu test had come back negative. A chest X-ray found no pneumonia. Preliminary tests for other respiratory illnesses also came back negative, pending the final lab results. My temperature came in at 99.6 degrees — a fraction of a degree below the 100.3 generally used to report a fever. The doctor gave me orders to stay home through Sunday, pending further test results, and asked me to wear the medical mask if I go out in public. I agreed.
The preliminary results of the respiratory test came back on Friday morning. I called the Sangamon County Public Health Department back to share the findings. According to their instructions, because I had traveled to Chicago and had taken part in large public gatherings, because I was showing many of the symptoms of COVID-19, and because I tested negative for the flu and pneumonia, I had finally met their requirements to qualify for a COVID-19 test. I was eager for a test to clear me, hoping perhaps I had caught some other random bug.
When the public health staffer picked up my phone call on Friday afternoon, she quickly informed me that I would not be authorized for a test at the hospital, because, “We have not gotten any guidance that [travel criteria] has changed.” She told me that, in short, because I had not traveled outside of the country, I didn’t qualify for a test.
Her supervisor eventually put Gail O’Neill, Director of the Sangamon County Public Health Department, on the phone.
I asked O’Neill, “Can you guys help me get tested?”
“No,” she responded. “There isn’t massive amounts of testing available.”
Twenty-four hours prior, O’Neill held a press conference, where infectious disease specialist Dr. Vidya Sundareshan had assured our audience, “the testing criteria from the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] are expanding.”
“We are also looking at travel within the United States and the risk of acquiring the disease with traveling within the United States as well, so the testing criteria are also expanding,” Dr. Sundareshan said, explaining that more tests are available, even for patients like me who never left the country.
I reminded Director O’Neill of those promises at the press conference she held just one day prior. She told me that was their eventual goal, but that under the stress and limitations of the current reality, I would not be allowed to be tested. Several other patients, who have similar symptoms, are also being turned away, while the experts focus their resources on the patients with symptoms far more severe than mine.
On Friday, Governor Pritzker tweeted, “Not everyone is going to need a test.”
“We have to prioritize those who are sick enough for the hospital, and our elderly residents and individuals who are otherwise immunocompromised,” he said.
To be clear, I don’t fit those descriptions. In the days since, my symptoms have all but disappeared. Out of an abundance of caution, I’ve also contacted the veteran’s group to alert them to be on the lookout for any symptoms, so that they can self-report if and when any signs start to show.
On Wednesday, Governor Pritzker called for expanded testing capabilities on national television.
In the meantime, I’m following doctor’s orders to stay home under quarantine for at least 72 hours. Without a test, that’s all I can do.