To Get Coronavirus Test Result, She Had To Call The Governor

SHREWSBURY, MA — When Margot Northam came down with coronavirus-like symptoms — a dry cough, fatigue — in March, she thought she would be a good candidate to get tested.

Northam, who lives in Westborough, is a cancer survivor, and her partner works with coronavirus patients as a nurse in the Boston area. She also wanted to know if it would be safe to visit her father in Connecticut on Easter.

But by seeking a coronavirus test, Northam ended up taking an unexpected journey through the very new system set up to deal with the coronavirus pandemic — and it didn’t inspire confidence.

“I knew what I needed to do for myself was not out of the norm for any other sentient, affluent developed country,” she said this week, reflecting on her testing experience.

The journey began April 1 when she drove by the coronavirus testing site at the CVS along Route 9. The site opened March 18 to test first responders, but on March 31 CVS opened it to anyone over the age of 65 with symptoms. Northam is only 61, but that wasn’t a problem the day she visited.

When she drove up, Northam was greeted by two local police officers. One officer told her someone would take her temperature and evaluate her symptoms, but no one ever did. A CVS news release from March 31 said the site “does not, and will not, administer tests on a walk-up or unscheduled drive-up basis.”

She recalls there were a few dozen people in the facility dressed in gowns and masks, and it felt “like a sci-fi movie.”

“I drove my car in, and somebody came to me and stuck the thing up my nose; it was unpleasant, and that was it,” she recalls.

The whole thing took about 15 minutes.

On April 5, Northam got a voicemail from a woman from the “community testing sites results center.” The woman instructed Northam to create an account on the Quest Diagnostics website, where she could eventually see her coronavirus test result. The woman also said Northam would not get any more calls about her test.

More than 30 local facilities are processing coronavirus tests, but Quest is by far the biggest. At its lab in Marlborough, the company has completed close to 60,000 tests out of the 141,000 that have been conducted in Massachusetts.

Northam already had a Quest account from previous medical tests. Her coronavirus results never appeared in her account — and still hadn’t as of Thursday. She also called CVS and the state Department of Health to try to track down her results, but didn’t get anywhere.

By April 8, Northam was frustrated. She contacted the offices of state Sen. Jamie Eldridge and Gov. Charlie Baker. Someone from the governor’s office called back, but the person advised Northam that the staff was “really busy” and might not call back.

Northam tried to imagine how taxing it would be to hunt for a test result while holding down a job as a medical worker, and possibly sick.

“You would kind of get combat fatigue,” she said.

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Luckily, she got a call back from the governor’s office. The person asked lots of questions, but didn’t have Northam’s test results. Then on April 9, she got a call from the state public health laboratory in Jamaica Plain. A woman told Northam that her test came back negative.

It’s unclear how Northam’s test got lost. She did learn that the Shrewsbury site was administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), so her test may not have been conducted locally. CVS spokesman Joseph Goode told Patch that Northam was supposed to get an ID number to retrieve her results. Northam said she never got one, and was only told that someone would contact her with results.

CVS is running a new, larger testing site in Lowell. That facility is testing about 1,000 people per day, Goode said. That site uses new 15-minute tests, and results are available on-site, he said. The Shrewsbury site closed down on April 7.

The state Department of Public Health tracks the number of tests and positive cases, but the agency does not notify people about test results, spokeswoman Ann Scales said Thursday.

“The clinician or healthcare provider who orders the test shares the results,” Scales said.

The experience confirmed for Northam, who used to work in health care policy, that coronavirus testing is a weak spot. Some believe the United States needs to test tens of millions of people per week to truly flatten the curve, but testing rates are much lower. Only about 40,000 people have been tested in the U.S. since April 9, according to Centers for Disease Control figures.

It shocked Northam that the governor’s office had to intervene to get her an answer.

“Imagine if I didn’t raise this to the state level — it’s patently wrong,” she said. “We’re not doing the testing we should be.”

On the bright side, because Northam’s test was negative, she got to visit her father on Easter.

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