"I'm a registered nurse who knows how to navigate the system, and I'm having trouble getting answers," a nurse from Sacramento told BuzzFeed News. "Members of the general public certainly must be faring much, much worse."
The 41-year-old nurse said she had to beg local county officials in order to get tested for the coronavirus, despite working daily with seniors who are low-income, the most at-risk group for the virus. Even then, the testing required she wait nearly five hours in a cold tent in the parking lot of Sutter Roseville Medical Center, northeast of Sacramento, which she first spoke about with an ABC affiliate. She called the tent testing situation "not even humane."
Six days later, she still does not have the results.
Another nurse, from the EvergreenHealth facility in Kirkland, Washington, the initial epicenter of the US outbreak, had to wait a week for results of her coronavirus test to come back, despite displaying respiratory symptoms and having cared directly for three patients who died of the disease.
Both nurses have asked to remain anonymous because their employers do not allow them to speak publicly.
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Their complaints come as nurses around the country are reporting that they feel unprepared to handle the health crisis. Health care workers have been infected by the virus, including the Chinese doctor who died after first warning colleagues of the deadly nature of the rapidly moving illness.
The Kirkland nurse believed she'd been exposed because initially her hospital only used droplet protection for nurses for the first few patients (a basic mask, gloves, and gown) before upgrading to airborne protections after positive COVID-19 results.
"I do have asthma, so if I die and they say I had underlying conditions, I'm going to haunt the CDC," she said before receiving her results. Her negative result finally came back Tuesday, a week after she was tested.
On the same day, new guidelines from the CDC confirmed hospitals only needed to use droplet protections. "Would have been nice to know before I freaked out," the Kirkland nurse told BuzzFeed News.
According to an internal email, Evergreen initially insisted that any quarantined staff would only be paid if they used their sick leave, insisting staff "may use their accrued Extended Illness Bank (EIB) or Sick Leave or choose to be unpaid while off work."
However, Evergreen later changed its policy and put its quarantined nurses, including this intensive care nurse, on paid administrative leave.
Are you a health care provider or patient who has had issues getting tested for the coronavirus? BuzzFeed News wants to hear from you. Take our survey here.
The nurse in Sacramento is still awaiting her test results for the coronavirus, six days after being tested. On Feb. 24, she said she experienced symptoms of what she thought was her annual seasonal allergies, and she continued to work, caring for senior citizens.
"Wouldn't it be such a tragedy if I was infecting others while doing my best to keep them healthy?" she told BuzzFeed News.
But by March 2, her symptoms worsened. Her nose was running, she was feverish, and coughing. By then, cases of COVID-19 were already popping up in Sacramento County, including the first person in the US to test positive without having traveled to a known area of exposure or had contact with an ill person.
She saw her primary care doctor and asked to test for the coronavirus, because of her work, but was told they did not have tests. The following day, she began a round of antibiotics for a sinus infection.
Three days later, she'd seen no improvement. She had a fever of nearly 103 degrees, her cough had worsened, and she struggled to stay awake for more than a few minutes.
"It was more sick than I have ever been as an adult," she said.
On Thursday, she called her doctor for a coronavirus test and was told she had to contact Placer County, which was responsible for testing. She left a voicemail with the county and contacted her insurance company, who told her to contact her primary care doctor.
Finally she emailed the head of public health at Placer County: "I fear I could be part of the covid-19 outbreak," she wrote, and explained her background, symptoms, and work.
Eventually, the county approved her for testing, and instructed her to go to Sutter Roseville Medical Center, which, the day before, on March 4, had run a drill, filmed by local media, showing how the hospital was responding to the coronavirus outbreak and had an emergency tent set up in its parking lot ready for testing.
"There was a big thing on local TV about how prepared they were for this and they definitely were not," said the nurse. She said she and her teenage daughter, who'd also started showing symptoms, were told to sit on a bench outside the tent, just near the entrance to the emergency department.
After 15 minutes, the sick nurse was allowed into the tent. After 40 minutes, her daughter was too. She said the tent was dirty, cold, and not sealed. Despite being visibly ill, there was only a plastic chair to sit on.
"We were kept in an unheated and visibly filthy tent, with no call light, no trash can, no biohazard bin, no electrical outlet, and, most concerning, no regular checks by staff," said the nurse.
"I repeatedly voiced my concerns about these basic safety matters to the RNs caring for us," she said, "but we were only offered shrugs and given excuses that 'This is all new' and 'No one really knows how we are going to be doing things just yet.'"
The hospital disputes that the tent was dirty. "The tent is clean and was sanitized, but has staining from use in emergency drills," said a Sutter Health spokesperson in a statement to BuzzFeed News. "The chairs and other items in the tent need to be disinfected and decontaminated after each use, so they are ones that can be effectively and efficiently cleaned."
"Sutter Roseville Medical Center erected a well-maintained tent in order to prepare for a potential surge in patients and to screen respiratory illnesses away from the general population," said the spokesperson.
The 41-year-old said the first nurse caring for them noted that he was helping them alone because his coworker was not full-time and didn't have benefits, and he didn't want them to suffer financially if they were infected.
After taking her vitals, the nurse disappeared for nearly two hours, she said, before another hospital staffer came in and told her it was highly unlikely she had COVID-19 because she hadn't come in contact with anybody who knew they were sick, and that the county would need to approve testing.
The sick nurse explained that the county had already approved her testing for the virus, as had her primary care doctor.
An hour later, the first nurse returned to take three swabs — two nasal and one throat — for testing. One of the nasal swabs was for influenza, which came back negative within an hour.
Nearly five hours after first arriving at the hospital, the nurse and her daughter went home and were told to self-quarantine and to call the county for test results.
She said she's been calling every day, but as of Wednesday morning did not yet have a result.
Placer County told BuzzFeed News it's been sending tests to the Sacramento Public Health Laboratory, and that the expected turnaround time for tests is 24–48 hours, "which has mostly been our experience," said Chris Gray-Garcia, a spokesperson for the county.
"Any delays may be due to the distance traveled to deliver specimens and the volume of specimens received statewide," he said.
On Tuesday night, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said over 7,000 people in the state have been tested for the coronavirus.
The Sacramento nurse said she fears if she is positive, then she's been unable to alert or properly prepare her elderly patients who may also be at risk.
And she also noted that if health care workers such as herself, who understand the symptoms and public health risk, still had to push for testing and help — then it's going to be even harder for everyday people to get care.
"I advocate for others who don't have necessarily the tools, skills, or knowledge base that I do," said the nurse. "We are grossly underprepared."
She said that's what made her decide to speak publicly.
"Theres a big push to calm people, which I get, people need to calm down. But in the push to calm people, there is no information going out," she said. "And I'm a nurse, so I have to ring the alarm bell. It’s a public health emergency."