Ryan Gooch awoke Tuesday to his 10th morning stuck in a kind of medical no man’s land.
On March 7, after experiencing flu-like symptoms for about 24 hours, he ended up in the emergency room at Lutheran Medical Center in Wheat Ridge. There, doctors tested him for influenza and other common illnesses. When those results came back negative, they swabbed him for a test for the new coronavirus. They sent him home.
And then the wait began. By Tuesday morning, he was still waiting — 10 full days without an answer.
“I’m frustrated,” he said, “but I’m not holding it against anyone. We’re all trying to figure out how to get through it. But they have just been completely unresponsive.”
Gooch’s story is emblematic of the state’s struggle to provide enough testing for the virus to meet the public’s demand or to get the clearest sense of how widely the disease has spread in Colorado. Drive-up testing sites in Denver drew so many cars that the lines had to be cut off early. And then the sites closed altogether. The same thing happened at a site in Aspen.
Testing samples flooding the state’s public health lab quickly overwhelmed its capacity — even though the lab has added staff, is running around the clock and can now perform about 250 tests a day. Overflow test samples were sent out to private labs, which are dealing with their own capacity limits.
Many who received tests, like Gooch, waited far longer than they were told they would have to. A producer at 9News only found out Monday that her test was negative, five days after her sample was taken on the first day of the state’s drive-up testing site. Some families — such as one in Colorado Springs that wrote about their experience on the website Medium — couldn’t get testing at all, despite having clear symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
And these delays and frustrations built as Colorado officials changed how they publicly talked about the need for testing. During the first week of COVID-19’s infiltration of Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis spoke of needing to exponentially scale up testing capacity until the state has the ability to run tens of thousands of tests a day.
“If you’re exhibiting flu-like symptoms, we want you to get tested,” Polis said at a news conference on March 10.
But, just three days later, on March 13, the director of the state’s lab said on 9News’ “Next With Kyle Clark” that “the time for testing is moving past us.”
And, on Tuesday, state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy told reporters that, while there is a need for more testing, “an average person with mild symptoms doesn’t necessarily need to be tested.”
Instead, people who are sick — regardless of what they have — should stay home unless and until they need medical help, she said. The state is trying to use its testing lab more strategically to identify community hotspots and test severely ill individuals or medical workers who are needed on the front lines.
“We are prioritizing certain testing at our state public health lab to really help us understand where transmission is occurring in the state,” Herlihy said.
“Obviously, it’s a limitation.”
Stuck at home
When he left the hospital on March 7, Gooch was told the test results would take a day or two, maybe three. Just isolate at home until you hear an answer, he was told.
But that third day rolled by and so did the fourth. He tried waiting patiently for his result, regularly checking the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s website to watch new testing numbers be posted, even as his symptoms worsened.
Gooch, who graduated from Colorado State University last year with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and is now doing post-doctoral research in Golden, did as much work from home as he could. When his fever rose, he put on a winter jacket and turned on a space heater to ward off the chills.
He kept checking the hospital’s online patient portal to see if his results had come in. Sometimes he called.
“I ended up getting bounced around to multiple people, five or six bounces every time I called,” said Gooch, who is 33. “It kind of seemed like no one would know where the result would be if it did come in.”
Meanwhile, Gooch’s wife, who works as an occupational therapist with children, was also self-quarantining. She, too, had come down with a fever and was worried she might pass whatever she had onto the kids she helps.
But staying home for her meant not getting paid. And the couple also hadn’t planned to be locked away from the world for so long. They ordered food delivery when they could. Slots for grocery delivery services were full, though.
“So we’re running a little thin on food at the house,” he said.
If he knew he didn’t have COVID-19, Gooch said he might be able to leave the house to go pick up groceries. His wife, whose fever subsided, might be able to go back to work.
He tried calling and emailing the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s helpline to see if someone there knew his result. He never received a response to the emails, and he said no one ever answered the phone. The longest he sat on hold was about 50 minutes. (CDPHE says the helpline is for general questions and cannot report test results.)
The sixth, seventh and eighth day went by. Gooch began responding on Twitter whenever CDPHE tweeted out information about their testing sites.
“Can you let us know if our tests were rejected?” he wrote in one such reply. “…Nothing was reported to my Dr and nothing reported to me. Who should I call about this?”
But there was no answer.
Better than average
Despite these struggles, Colorado is actually doing better than most of the nation at testing.
According to the COVID Tracking Project, an internet community effort, Colorado has run more tests for COVID-19 than all but nine other states — and most of those states have far larger populations. The state’s drive-up testing site was one of — and maybe even the first — opened in the country.
Polis has said the state’s relatively aggressive approach to testing is one reason why Colorado has such a high number of confirmed COVID-19 cases compared to the rest of the nation. The state is tied with Illinois for the eighth-most positive test results, according to the COVID Tracking Project. (Colorado has since updated both the number of tests it has run and the number of positive cases — to 1,790 and 183, respectively. Because the COVID Tracking Project tallies only update once a day, it’s unclear how these new numbers will affect the state’s ranking.)
But the United States, as a whole, has an abysmal testing record compared to most of the rest of the world. And Polis on Monday talked about how limited and slow testing is hampering the state’s response to the public health crisis.
There are likely thousands of cases of the disease in Colorado that officials don’t know about. Without better data, it’s harder for health authorities to target their limited resources. And, the slower test results come in, the further behind the disease the state’s response falls. “Chasing the ghost,” Polis called it.
Because the state lab is not set up to do testing on an enormous scale, Colorado and other states are largely looking to the private sector to step up. In addition to testing companies like LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics, hospital systems like UCHealth are working toward being able to conduct testing. But the process of getting that set up is slow and could take another week or two.
“We know we need to test as much as possible,” Polis said.
There’s another valuable reason for wider testing, Polis and others have said. It’s so people like Gooch know when they can go on with their lives.
Waiting it out
By the ninth day after his test, Gooch had become resigned to what he would do.
His fever had gone away. His cough was better.
“I just have to assume that I had the coronavirus and that I have to sit out my quarantine for at least 14 days,” he said.
But people awaiting testing have received mixed messages on that advice, too. Guidance on a CDPHE website says people who have or think they have COVID-19 should stay home for 10 days after the onset of their symptoms. Talking to reporters on Tuesday, Herlihy said people with a respiratory illness should stay home at least seven days after the onset of symptoms — and until they haven’t had a fever for 72 hours and their symptoms are improving.
Gooch said he’s tried to do as much research as he can on best practices. The last thing he wants to do is infect someone else. But he said he wishes health authorities would provide clearer guidance, though he said he understands the strain they are under.
“They’re in a tough situation, I get that,” he said.
So, when he hit the 10th day of waiting on Tuesday, Gooch was prepared to wait another four days before heading out into public. This is an extraordinary time. The inconvenience is worth it to protect public health, he thought.
And then, early in the afternoon, his phone rang. It was a staffer at Lutheran Medical Center, the hospital that sent in his test sample.
His test was negative.
“Given my set of symptoms, and given how long it took to run it, I am very surprised by this result,” he wrote in an email. “But hopefully this means I at least can get out of self quarantine to get groceries now!”
Staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.