TORRINGTON – A nationwide lack of COVID-19 testing materials has caused hospitals around the country to create algorithms to determine whether or not symptomatic patients are tested for COVID-19 – and Banner Community Hospital in Torrington is no exception.
Debbie Kilmer, of Torrington, saw that firsthand when she arrived at the emergency room struggling to breath and showing all of the now-familiar signs of the novel coronavirus – a fever, a cough and shortness of breath.
Medical personnel wore protective equipment, machines were wrapped in plastic, and she was put into an isolated room. She got a chest x-ray, and Kilmer said the nurse told the x-ray technician to stay six feet away.
“Fever, the coughing and everything and I had trouble breathing,” she said. “I had really bad trouble breathing.”
Still, she wasn’t tested for COVID-19.
“The doctor excused everything,” Kilmer said. “‘I don’t feel you have COVID, that’s not the case.’ They just sent me home and prescribed me prednisone, and that didn’t even touch the surface.”
Eventually, Kilmer sought out a second opinion from a doctor in Scottsbluff, who ordered a COVID-19 test. Kilmer said the test was performed at Banner, but when she called to get the results, she was told the test had “leaked” on the way to the lab and been spoiled.
“I said ‘it leaked?’” Kilmer said. “The doctor wanted to tell you that if it doesn’t get any better, if it worsens, to go to the ER. How much worse did they want it to get? Does that make sense?”
Unfortunately, though, tests are limited. BCH CEO Zach Miller said he couldn’t comment on individual cases, but said there is a strict algorithm in place to determine who should be tested for COVID-19.
“Banner Health hospitals and clinics are following a testing algorithm and will test patients when appropriate,” he said. “We have adequate testing supplies, but only those who meet criteria will be tested.”
“The guidelines are subject to change daily as the pandemic situation does, but the current Banner guidelines determine that certain groups of the population who are showing symptoms will be tested.
“High-risk workers like health care workers, first responders, law enforcement officers and mass transit workers will be tested. Critical infrastructure personnel, people who live in a congregate setting like a nursing facility, people over 65 years of age and their caretakers, and the immunocompromised will also be tested.”
That is in line with what State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist said during a press conference on Friday. According to her, lack of testing supplies is a nationwide problem. The algorithms have been designed around the most essential workers and at-risk patients.
“We hope that the supply situation will improve and we’re trying to get more of the materials that we need,” Harrist said. “We know this is a problem nationwide, and not just in Wyoming. We must ensure that we can offer testing when and where it can make the most difference – that is why we cannot accept samples from patients that do not fall within our priority categories. We need to reserve the supplies that we have to ensure that testing can continue.”
to be tested
Kilmer said she believes she has COVID-19, and said the doctors at Regional West Medical Center in Scottsbluff, Neb., agree – but she has still not had a repeat test. She was tested for the flu – twice.
Both tests were negative.
“I started getting the runny nose, like the doctor in Bluffs said,” Kilmer said. “I had it all, plus. He said ‘for them not to test you…’ Everybody was dumbfounded. For the nurse to call me and tell me it had leaked out, and to call the ER if my symptoms got worse.
“They knew. Why would they cover that machine in plastic? They isolated me in a room.
“If it gets worse, go into the ER, when the ER was scared to even touch me. They sure protected themselves. The machine, they wrapped it in plastic and everything. The nurse, the guy who did my chest x-ray, she told him to stay six feet away. You tell me how I should feel. It doesn’t make sense.”
While the situation left Kilmer frustrated, what she said happened at Banner is in line with precautions taken by staff at Banner.
“It is of the utmost importance to us that we provide a safe and secure environment for our health care workers,” Miller said. “They are the most valuable resource for our community during the COVID-19 outbreak, and we are dedicated to keeping them healthy. Our safety protocols around isolation, distancing, sanitation and protective equipment are in place to keep our health care workers and our patients as safe as possible.”
And unfortunately, Harrist said there will be a lot of cases like Kilmer’s – where a patient presents with all of the symptoms of COVID-19, but the diagnosis is never confirmed.
“We know that everyone who has COVID-19 will not be able to be tested,” she said.
“We know there are more cases in Wyoming than we have been able to directly track through lab testing. We expect to see more illnesses in the state in the month to come. Some will be reported because they will be lab tested, some will not.”
Just assume you have it
Kilmer took it upon herself to quarantine in her home for two weeks – an act she said her doctor in Scottsbluff applauded.
“I knew in my heart that’s what it was,” she said. “Does that make sense? I do have some medical issues, but I’ve never felt anything like this. I knew it. When the doctor told me I most likely had it, he said I had gone through the worst part but I still had a road to recovery.
“The doctor (in Scottsbluff) told me that if it wasn’t for you isolating and everything like that, he said ‘you saved yourself and you saved your community.’ What does that tell you? The doctor felt I had it, and I had gone through the worst part.”
Regardless of the outcome of a COVID-19 test, that’s what patients are being directed to do when they show symptoms. Though scientists and researchers across the globe are working around the clock to find a vaccine or something that can help curb the spread of this virus, the only thing that absolutely works is to limit possible exposure.
“For those with no symptoms, mild symptoms or improving symptoms, it is recommended that they stay at home, isolate from others in their household, and manage and monitor their symptoms,” Miller said. “They should remain isolated until they are symptom-free for at least 72 hours. If their condition worsens to include shortness of breath or breathing difficulty, going to the ER is recommended.”
Harrist said patients with COVID-19 symptoms, whether they’re able to be tested or not, should just assume they’ve contracted the novel coronavirus.
“If you have a fever or a cough, you may or may not have COVID-19,” she said. “We ask that you assume that you do and follow our recommendations, especially stay home and away from other people if you are ill, no matter what your job may be. Most people are able to recover at home without medical attention.”
Kilmer made it through on her own, but she believes she only made it through the worst of her symptoms because she had an oxygen machine at home. She described the experience of having what are known as telltale signs of COVID-19, but not being tested for the virus, as ‘horrifying.’
“I was dumbfounded,” she said. “I can’t believe the way Torrington Hospital treated me.
“My whole thing is, I don’t care if nothing gets done, but people need to know and understand. They can’t do this to people.
“It was sad. It makes me emotional. With them calling me and telling me the test leaked, and that’s it.”