On Tuesday, March 3, 2020, a 33-year-old Queens, New York man who drives for Uber and taxi service, felt unwell, and he went to St. John's Episcopal Hospital in Queens. Doctors there sent him home, only to have him return later when his symptoms worsened.
On Friday, March 6, 2020, tests confirmed that the man has the COVID-19 virus, and this has caused 40 doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff to go into self-imposed quarantine. The removal of these health care workers is a blow to the New York State healthcare system.
How can this be avoided in the future?
The ideal solution would be a COVID-19 home test, and according to a March 8, 2020 article in the Seattle Times, that is going to become a reality thanks to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, partnered with the University of Washington.
People who think they might have the virus will be able to fill out a detailed questionnaire online. Then, if their symptoms match those of COVID-19, they will receive a test kit delivered to their home within two hours.
The results of the test will be available within two days and will be sent directly to local health officials.
The way this program got up and running so quickly is that it uses resources from another Gates Foundation project — the Seattle Flu Study, which is a 2-year-old research project based at the University of Washington.
The Seattle Flu Study has been funded to the tune of $20 million by Gates Ventures, which is the private office of Bill Gates. On February 28, 2020, the Flu Study website announced that they have begun testing for COVID-19, but that, "As a research organization, we are not able to diagnose individuals with COVID-19. However, we will be analyzing some of our research samples for COVID-19 to better understand community circulation of this virus. If we find any samples that have COVID-19 detected in them, we will work closely with public health partners to determine appropriate next steps."
On March 4, 2000, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced that it will commit an additional $5 million to help public health agencies in King and Snohomish Counties to detect COVID-19.
The only drawback to home testing is that nasal swabs need to be inserted far into the nasal passages, and this might be uncomfortable for some patients. The Gates Foundation will work with Public Health-Seattle and King County, the Washington State Department of Health, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Can I have a Whopper with that?
According to an NPR article also on March 8th, the University of Washington is testing its UW Medicine System employees for COVID-19 in a drive-thru set up at a hospital garage.
If workers have a fever, dry cough or other symptoms of COVID-19, they can fill out an online questionnaire, then receive an appointment time at the drive-thru.
There, a nurse in full protective gear takes two swabs, one from each nostril, through the car's open window. Besides COVID-19, the lab the swabs are sent to also tests for influenza A and B and Respiratory Syncytial Virus, or RSV.
Director of the disease clinic at the UW Medical Center Northwest, Dr. Seth Cohen, told NPR, "We want to make sure that if our staff test negative, we get them back to work as soon as we can. But if they test positive, we want to keep them out of the workforce to make sure they're not going on to infect other staff or patients."
Cohen told NPR that so far, their testing has found a few cases of COVID-19 and "lots of flu." UW plans to extend its drive-thru testing to first responders.
A delay in COVID-19 testing in the U.S.
In the U.S., COVID-19 testing has been delayed due to contamination of one element of the test that was developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Also, the CDC had recommended that only people who had been in a country having an outbreak of the virus, or had direct contact with someone who was sick, be tested.
Due to those restrictions, the COVID-19 virus went undetected in the Seattle area where it has so far killed 19 people.