Two dozen doctors and no one can help: Hamilton County resident fears a lack of coronavirus testing

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Becky Barnes, administrator of health services for the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department, speaks during a press conference about the coronavirus (COVID-19) as Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger stands behind her at the McDaniel Building on Thursday, March 12, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

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Hamilton County remains free of known COVID-19 infections, despite a rapidly growing number of cases across Tennessee. Some residents, however, fear that is the product of a lack of testing.

"I can't really breathe or function and no one will help me," Sarah Thompson, a Harrison resident concerned about exposure to the virus, told the Times Free Press. "It feels like a boa constrictor literally wrapped around my chest and nobody at any of the doctors or the county will test me."

Thompson said she fell ill a couple of weeks ago and is getting worse, despite tests and treatment for the flu and other common ailments. Still, despite treatment for other illnesses, an audibly out of breath Thompson said she is being refused testing.

"Look, I went to the [Erlanger emergency room] on Gunbarrel Road last week, and today I called the health department and about two dozen doctors, but most won't let me in and say they aren't testing," Thompson said. "And those who are say they probably wouldn't test me because I'm not their patient and I don't fit the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control] description."

At 24, Thompson knows she is out of the demographic most likely to be in danger if exposed to the strain of coronavirus spreading across much of the world. Three years ago Thompson suffered from peripartum cardiomyopathy, a rare heart condition in recent mothers, a factor she believes puts her at higher risk.

"They are talking about people with preexisting conditions being more vulnerable and I literally had heart failure a few years ago," she said. "I work as a dog groomer and I'm around people constantly, including one client who recently traveled to Italy."

Since Italy is among the most impacted countries in the world, with more than 1,000 deaths reported by the nation as of Thursday afternoon, Thompson fears she could have easily been exposed to the virus.

"I'm isolating myself, but I have a 3-year-old with low white blood cells," she said. "I shouldn't be ignored about this given the circumstances, who I've been exposed to and my condition."

Contrary to claims by Thompson and other members of the public, Hamilton County officials said at a news conference Thursday afternoon that testing is going according to plan.

"We do not have any COVID-19 cases in Hamilton County, but we do suspect that we will," Becky Barnes, administrator of health services for the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department, said. "We've been anticipating COVID-19 to reach our community and have been preparing and continue to prepare."

Barnes said the health department will add an outbreak-specific webpage to its website where an updated count of tests and positive results will be shared. As of Thursday, one test had been returned from the state lab as a negative and no other results from Hamilton County were available.

"Seeking care is a judgment call. Obviously if someone is seriously ill, and shortness of breath has been one of the severe symptoms we look for in this, then they definitely should," county health officer Paul Hendricks said. "For the vast majority of people, it's a minor respiratory illness. You can be tested in Hamilton County."

(Read more: Chattanooga area cancellations due to coronavirus fears)

Hendricks said that, while the actual tests are done by commercial and state labs, most local physicians are able to swab and send in the samples to be tested.

But, according to Thompson, not one of the more than 20 doctors she has contacted between Hamilton County and Calhoun, Georgia, including six recommended to her by the health department, has been willing or able to collect a swab.

No representative of the county was able to provide an estimate of how many tests are pending results, since physicians are not required to go through the health department.

Both Chattanooga and county representatives said Thursday they are unaware of any cases and are working to minimize the impact of the virus if and when it makes it to the region.

Even with Hamilton County public schools and several local private schools, colleges and universities closing, and governments and private businesses preparing for remote work, Thompson thinks the county is in danger.

"I'm really scared, and I can't believe no one at any doctor or the health department is willing to test me. They should want to know if it's here," Thompson said. "I'm just worried about what I will do and how many other people aren't being tested."

Attempts to reach spokespeople for Erlanger and the health department in response to Thompson's claims late Thursday were not successful.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at [email protected] or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @sarahgtaylor.