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Ailing Brooklyn Doctor Desperately Seeking Coronavirus Test

Healthcare workers test for coronavirus using a swab.
Healthcare workers test for coronavirus using a swab.
Photo: igorstevanovic/Shutterstock

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A Brooklyn doctor who’s been coughing for two weeks says he’s tried repeatedly to get tested for coronavirus while continuing to see patients — only to be turned away.

“I just called around. I need to get tested. I need to get testing kits and I need to have the confidence to keep treating patients,” said the general practitioner, who spoke to THE CITY on the condition that he remain anonymous.

“I could end up being the vector,” he said.

For weeks, a growing chorus of complaints has arisen as more New Yorkers with symptoms that could indicate they’re infected with coronavirus have been told they are not eligible for testing.

New York hospitals have restricted testing largely to the elderly and people with pre-existing medical conditions such as heart problems or diabetes who are displaying COVID-19 symptoms: fever with dry cough or shortness of breath. People who recently returned from coronavirus hot zones also get priority.

The problem is aggravated by a limited supply of U.S. Centers for Disease Control-approved test kits, and a limited ability to check the results in labs. Only late last week did the federal Food and Drug Administration authorize automated testing at private labs, which is expected to accelerate the process.

On Tuesday, Stephanie Buhle, a spokesperson for the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, could not answer THE CITY’s questions on how many health care workers — including doctors, nurses and EMTs — have tested positive, noting the agency is not tracking that data.

“Testing is being prioritized for patients who are hospitalized with severe acute lower respiratory illness (e.g., pneumonia),” she wrote in an email.

‘Stay Home’

In a city Health Department guidance order issued to doctors Sunday, the agency noted the importance of health care workers carefully monitoring their own well-being: “In the setting of a pandemic with widespread community transmission in New York City, all healthcare workers are at some risk for exposure to COVID-19, whether in the workplace or in the community.”

During an appearance on “Morning Joe” Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio made a point of declaring that more testing is crucial — starting with “testing to make sure health care workers are safe.”

The guidance issued Sunday advises all health care workers, regardless of whether they’ve had a known coronavirus exposure, “to self-monitor by taking their temperature twice daily and assessing for COVID-19 like illness.”

The guidance advises if health care workers “develop any signs or symptoms of a COVID-19 like illness they should NOT report to work.” That includes any signs of fever due to body temperature of 100 degrees or more.

Buhle cited this guidance in stating that the doctor who spoke with THE CITY “should stay home.”

Gowns, Goggles Gloves

But the doctor says he feels he needs to be on the ground during the crisis, and made clear he takes serious precautions to avoid potential transmission of the illness.

“I’m screening everybody over the phone who comes into the office to see if they’re flagrantly corona, and then I’m putting on my outfit,” he said. “It’s a gown, goggles, N95 masks and gloves. I’ve been very careful.”

The doctor told THE CITY he’s been seeing a steady stream of patients with possible COVID-19 symptoms since the first New York City resident tested positive March 1.

As a veteran practitioner, he figured it would be a simple matter to get tested. But as he called around to his contacts in the field, he was told repeatedly he was out of luck.

In some cases, it was a question of eligibility: He has no pre-existing conditions, was not displaying a fever and hadn’t recently traveled to any of the then-hot zone countries.

In other cases, he said he was told by top hospital officials they simply didn’t have available test kits to get the job done.

To date he’s seen five patients he believed were likely infected, only one of whom was able to get tested quickly. That patient received the results Tuesday: He tested positive.

The doctor sent the other four to CityMD and two were tested. Their results are pending.

‘It’s Very Disturbing’

On Tuesday, the doctor received test kits he’d requested two weeks ago from Labcorps and was hoping to test himself. But the kits did not include the requisition forms Labcorps requires to provide results of any tests.

“So I’ve got nothing,” he said. “It’s annoying. It’s very disturbing. They had two months from when China started to get primary care doctors a bunch of kits to see who has what. That was quite a shortcoming.”

The doctor’s story, in some respects, echoes the experience of Brooklyn public school teacher Erin McCarthy, who exhibited coronavirus symptoms after returning from a winter break trip to Italy and couldn’t initially get tested.

After THE CITY reported on her plight, the city ordered tests for public school teachers, city health care workers and first responders who fit the testing criteria. McCarthy eventually tested negative.

On Monday, de Blasio announced a deal with a private lab, Bioreference, to begin automated testing that will ramp up in the coming weeks to 5,000 per day. He also said, in part because of this, he expects New York City could soon find itself with 10,000 people testing positive for coronavirus.

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