As of 11 a.m. Friday, March 20, 44 Maine residents have been confirmed positive and 12 others are presumed positive for the coronavirus, according to the state. Click here for the latest coronavirus news, which the BDN has made free for the public. You can support this mission by purchasing a digital subscription.
Penobscot County Treasurer John Hiatt received a letter Thursday with a bit of good news: He had tested negative for the novel coronavirus that’s caused a global pandemic and shut down much of daily life.
But the good news for Hiatt came after a frustrating five-day period.
That period highlighted the limited availability of testing for COVID-19, the sometimes conflicting decisions from health care providers on whether patients should be tested for the infection, and the fear that those who can’t get tested can still spread the highly contagious virus.
Hiatt, who lives in Bangor and also serves on the Bangor School Committee, started developing a cold and sore throat on March 11. He had visited Boston nearly three weeks before, but his visit was before the biotech firm’s conference that was responsible for a majority of Massachusetts’ early coronavirus cases. The timeframe also put him outside the 14-day window recommended by the U.S. CDC for testing people with symptoms who had visited heavily affected areas.
So when Hiatt, 37, visited his doctor, he was told he didn’t fit the criteria to be tested for coronavirus even though he had traveled outside of Maine. He sought the test because he wanted to make sure the people he had interacted with weren’t at risk of being infected with COVID-19 because of him. In addition to attending public meetings of the Bangor School Committee and Penobscot County commissioners, Hiatt works at Bangor International Airport.
The U.S. CDC has been recommending that health care providers prioritize a limited supply of tests for hospitalized patients showing COVID-19 symptoms, those with symptoms who are in higher-risk groups such as seniors and those with underlying medical conditions, and those known to have had contact with infected people or traveled to areas affected by the coronavirus 14 days or less before they developed COVID-19 symptoms.
Three days after his doctor told him he didn’t meet testing criteria, Hiatt walked into Bangor City Hall — with a mask on — for a news conference last Saturday at which the Bangor School Department announced a two-week closure. By that time, his symptoms had cleared up. However, he mentioned his experience to health experts at the news conference and they recommended that he get tested, Hiatt said.
From the news conference, he went directly to Penobscot Community Health Care’s walk-in care clinic with his mask on and hand sanitizer in tow. There, he was swabbed for the coronavirus test, even though his provider told him she didn’t believe he needed the test.
“I don’t even know why I was tested. I hadn’t been symptomatic at all when I was tested. I didn’t meet the testing criteria,” he said. “The only thing out of the ordinary is three weeks ago, I was in Boston. And I’m around a lot of people.”
After being told to expect results in 48 hours, Hiatt didn’t receive his results for five days. During that period, he was told to self-quarantine, but also to use his discretion in terms of leaving his home to buy essentials, such as groceries.
“I missed government meetings. I missed work. Nobody knew what was going on,” he said. “I feel like they wasted a test on me.”
Not everyone who seeks a COVID-19 test can get it, due to a shortage of testing kits in Maine and elsewhere. According to Dr. Noah Nesin, vice president of medical affairs at Penobscot Community Health Care, young and healthy people with mild symptoms and people without symptoms should not try to get tested. Instead, they should self-isolate.
“Without the kind of unlimited testing resources that we’d like to have and without a quicker turnaround time for the tests, we have to be more intentional with who gets the tests,” Nesin said this week.
Those limits have been a cause for frustration.
After their 3-year-old daughter’s asthma flared up without explanation and she developed a low-grade fever, Victoria Greenleaf and her wife took her to two different doctors seeking to have her tested for COVID-19. But both times, the Saco residents were told their daughter could not be tested because she was not in an at-risk age group, even though her symptoms were consistent with COVID-19.
“It was frustrating because, well, if she has symptoms, she should be tested to make sure because we have two other children in the house, too,” Greenleaf said. “They said it wouldn’t change anything medically even if she did have it, but it would be good to know.”
Meanwhile, the family is in self-quarantine — without being clear on what that is supposed to entail. Greenleaf, who works at the mental health services provider Sweetser and is the family’s primary earner, is worried about losing her income.
The federal guidance on who should be tested is limited, and those testing guidelines continue to change, said Dr. Jay Mullen, a Brunswick-based emergency room doctor who co-chairs the legislative committee of the Maine Medical Association.
“Really, who would benefit from tests is determined by whether or not the individual patient has high-risk patient features, like whether they are elderly or have underlying stuff such as diabetes and heart disease, or whether they are sharing a household with someone at high risk,” he said.
But underlying medical conditions aren’t an automatic ticket for a test, either.
Amy and Richard Royer, who own a livestock farm in the Waldo County town of Brooks, both came down with what felt like bad respiratory infections in the last few weeks after relatives visited them from New York in late February.
The Royers — both 52 and with underlying health conditions — said that they were eventually tested for COVID-19 last week and the results came back negative. But their experience highlighted uneven experiences from different health care providers in trying to get tested.
After becoming ill, Richard Royer, a U.S. Air Force veteran, initially visited the Togus campus of the VA Maine Healthcare System around March 6, where he said that an emergency department provider asked if he wanted to be tested for COVID-19. He declined the test then, he said, because he was informed that there were only a small number of testing materials left and he thought there might be other veterans who needed a test more than he did.
Then, Amy Royer visited her own primary care provider in Coopers Mills last week and received a COVID-19 test that came back negative. At that point, Richard Royer said that he contacted his primary care provider at Togus, who told him to return to be tested for the virus. But when he arrived at Togus, he said that an emergency room doctor declined to test him after he was found to have another virus.
Only on Friday did Richard Royer go to his wife’s primary care office and receive his own COVID-19 test that came back negative.
A Togus representative didn’t address Royer’s case but said the medical center is offering “comprehensive COVID-19 screening and treatment services,” collecting samples and sending them to the Maine CDC’s lab for testing. Togus has also started prescreening everyone entering the campus for coronavirus symptoms.
BDN writer Charles Eichacker contributed to this report.
Watch: Symptoms of the coronavirus disease