For the Sick, an Agonizing Wait for Coronavirus Testing in Massachusetts

"They called the Department of Public Health and were told if I couldn't name a person that I knew had a positive test, and I hadn't traveled outside the country, that I couldn't get tested," said one cancer patient in Massachusetts

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Danni Aubain has cancer, so when she started to feel lousy late last month, she was especially worried.

Aubain said the illness hit her like a ton of bricks. She had a fever of 103 degrees, and a horrible, dry cough.

"I really couldn't breathe," she said, "and that's scary for anyone undergoing chemo."

When she sought medical care, Aubain said both her oncologist and an emergency room doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital pushed to have her tested for COVID19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus spreading across the globe.

But despite their recommendations, the answer they got back from the state's epidemiologists was that Aubain didn't meet the criteria for testing.

"They called the Department of Public Health and were told if I couldn't name a person that I knew had a positive test, and I hadn't traveled outside the country, that I couldn't get tested," she said.

In response to questions from NBC10 Boston, Mass. General said it can't discuss any patient's treatment.

But Aubain's story is like so many others relayed to the NBC10 Boston Investigators over the last week by viewers across the state who couldn't get a test. Many said they experienced symptoms of the disease, like fever and shortness of breath. Like Aubain, some were also seen by doctors who were convinced they should be screened.

But with a dearth of test kits available in the state until late last week, and with restrictive guidelines in place from the federal government, many said they were left frustrated, scared and confused about what to do next.

The new center will help coordinate the commonwealth's lab testing, quarantining and more, and it will have the authority to tap into whatever state funds are needed, the governor said, including $15 million appropriated by the Legislature for coronavirus.

Federal officials are rapidly scaling up the nation's infrastructure to test for COVID-19 this week after a series of missteps hampered the country's ability to screen for the virus as it migrated from its epicenter in China to destinations across the globe. As of Monday, there were more than 4,000 cases of the disease reported in the United States, which has seen more than 70 deaths to date.

On Monday, health officials in Massachusetts announced nearly 1,300 people have been tested for the disease, and 197 have tested positive.

The state's capacity to test patients has increased significantly in recent days as federal officials granted Massachusetts permission to begin testing samples at the state's public health laboratory, rather than sending them to a centralized location run by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Federal officials also expanded their guidelines for testing, giving clinicians more discretion to order a test for the virus, and shipped some 5,000 additional test kits to Massachusetts last week, easing a strain on the local supply.

The CDC also issued new guidelines that allow doctors and nurses to submit a single nasal swab for testing, rather than both a nasal swab and another sample from the patient's throat. The change should allow Massachusetts to double its testing capacity, bringing the number of tests conducted each day from 200 to 400, Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel said at a press conference Sunday.

The Food and Drug Administration, which must approve testing sites, also granted permission late last week to a pair of private companies — Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp — to begin testing samples collected from patients in Massachusetts. Hospital labs in Massachusetts are expected to launch their own testing programs shortly.

"With more clinical labs in Massachusetts working to get FDA approval, even more capacity will be coming online soon," Bharel said Sunday.

Federal officials say the United States is now on track to test thousands of patients a day for the virus after lagging far behind other countries in its efforts to detect the virus.

Independent research cited by the CDC indicates the US had completed about 20,000 tests as of March 13. That number pales in comparison to the aggressive testing effort in South Korea, which has a much smaller population, but has tested some 15,000 people per day.

While the United States is poised to learn more about the scope of the pandemic soon, many in the Bay State who fear they've contracted the disease say they believe the government missed an important opportunity to help contain its spread.

"I have a couple of friends in my social circle that are feeling flu-like symptoms and they're just writing it off as the flu," said Rita Czernewski, a Canton resident who came down with an unexplained illness a few weeks ago and has been frustrated by her inability to get tested for the novel coronavirus.

"We're just kind of stuck," she said. "The only thing we can do is just be cautious."

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