Patients, medical providers frustrated, overwhelmed by coronavirus

Karen Bouffard Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Sterling Heights City Council member Mike Radtke has reason to suspect he might have COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, but he can't get tested.

Neither can Peter and Monica Radecki of West Bloomfield, or their two small children, who fell ill after recent domestic travel and hosting out-of-state guests.  

They're among untold Michigan residents who are frustrated, fearful and perplexed about the current pandemic. 

So are health care providers like Dr. Tiffany Sanford, chief medical officer for The Wellness Plan, which runs five federally qualified health care centers in Detroit, Oak Park and Pontiac. 

The Wellness Plan centers provide primary care to 20,000 patients a year. But they haven't tested one patient for coronavirus because they don't have a single N95 face mask. The masks are recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to protect health workers from getting COVID-19, especially while swabbing the throats of patients for coronavirus testing. 

The frustrations have mounted despite ramped-up efforts by hospitals, public health agencies and the state and federal government to contain the virus. 

On Friday, President Donald Trump announced a new public-private partnership to expand coronavirus testing capabilities, as his administration has come under fire for being too slow in making the test available. The partnership will include drive-through testing in some locations and an online portal to screen those seeking to get tested. 

At a White House press conference, Trump said officials still don’t want people taking the test unless they have certain symptoms — a fever, a bad cough and a shortness of breath. “We don’t want people without symptoms to go and do that test,” Trump said, adding, “It’s totally unnecessary.” 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has ordered all schools closed for three weeks, starting on Sunday and has banned public gathering of more that 250 people.

Hospitals impose restrictions

Metro Detroit hospital systems have imposed visiting restrictions. As of Friday, all of Beaumont Health's eight hospitals implemented visitor safety restrictions will be in place, representatives said.

University of Michigan Health System, which has been treating a patient with confirmed COVID-19, has revised its guest policy.  

UM's hospitals aren't allowing visitors with with flu-like or cold symptoms, children visitors under 16 except in exception circumstances and limits on the number of adult visitors for adult patients, newborn patients and mothers in delivery.

 Hospital systems Ascension, McLaren and Henry Ford said they were monitoring the outbreak and by late Thursday had not changed their visitor protocols.

Among Beaumont's restrictions, no visitors are allowed in rooms of patients with pending or positive COVID-19 tests, except under extreme circumstances. And no one under 16 can visit any patient unless the circumstances are dire.

Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak

Visitors must remain in the hospital room for the duration of the visit. And anyone with a fever, runny nose, cough and shortness of breath will be barred from visitation.

“The decision to restrict visitors was difficult and made only after careful consideration as we witness schools, churches and other venues restrict gatherings to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” said Beaumont Health Chief Nursing Officer Susan Grant in a statement. 

Beaumont also has launched a coronavirus hotline. Staffed by Beaumont nurses, the hotline offers information about the virus and directs patients to the appropriate level of care, such as treating symptoms at home, following up with a primary doctor or seeking treatment at an urgent care or an emergency center.

One patient's frustration

But the hotline offered little solace to Radtke, who called it on Friday. He told his story to The Detroit News Friday through a succession of deep-chested coughs.

Radtke spent time about two weeks ago with a group of people who had recently visited China. Five days later, he came down with a fever and the cough.

He's not concerned for himself, but he lives with his father — a cancer survivor who has only one lung. So after urging from his dad, city hall colleagues and a couple of friends, he decided to get tested. 

"So today I attempted to contact my primary care doctor, a Beaumont doctor," Radtke said Friday. "I called the office, and every appointment slot was full.

Radtke hung up from his doctor's office and called the Beaumont Coronavirus Hotline. But since his fever has gone away and they thought his symptoms were mild, they said he didn't qualify for testing. 

"They just told me to stay home and stay out of public," Radtke said. "From a public health standpoint, how do we know how many people are infected if people aren’t being tested, or are being dissuaded from testing." 

The state health department is also launching a hotline starting Saturday at 9 a.m. Public health and other experts will answer health-related questions about COVID-19 as well as direct residents, providers and more to resources in their local communities and in other state government departments. 

The hotline will be open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 1 (888) 535-6136.

“As we continue to take precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our state, we want to ensure Michiganders have the information they need to stay healthy, address concerns and know where to go for the care they need if they experience symptoms,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive. 

Family exasperated

In West Bloomfield, the Radecke family had a similar experience. Peter, 33, Monica, 26, and their two-and-a-half-year-old and 10-month-old sons traveled to San Francisco in January and to Boston in February. In early March, they hosted house guests from Kentucky. 

One of the kids came down with a fever and cough after San Francisco. Then the other one got sick. And the parents fell ill last weekend. 

Peter and Monica Radecki, and their sons Peter, 2, and David, 10 months-old, pictured on a January trip to San Francisco, worry they may have contracted coronavirus but are unable to get tested.

Based on the timing of their travels and when cases were confirmed in California and Massachusetts, as well as the fact that Kentucky had a rash of COVID-19 cases coinciding with their out-of-town house guests, they think they should be tested. But they were told they don't qualify. 

"The main focus point is that we feel frustrated in the lack of available testing for Michiganders with mild to moderate symptoms, testing which is critical to preventing community spread of the disease," said Monica, whose cough continued Friday.

"The CDC's and Michigan's lack of testing availability is preventing us from knowing if we have the virus and are contagious," she said. "It feels like CDC's and Michigan's strategy is to not test anyone until coronavirus is endemic and testing is no longer needed..."

At The Wellness Center, Dr. Sanford understands their frustration. 

"The CDC has specific guidelines that came out regarding the sampling and testing of patients," Sanford said Friday. 

"During the swabbing of a possibly infected patient, it produces a cough or a sneeze, because you're really sticking a Q-Tip into their nasal passages and into their throat," Sanford explained. "It puts the provider providing that swab at increased risk of actually catching the disease."

The N95 mask is specially fitted to block off viral particles released into the air when throats and noses are swabbed, but even hospitals have had trouble getting them, Sanford said. The Wellness Center has been trying to get the masks for more than a month and has struck out with multiple vendors. 

If federal agencies like the CDC have access to such equipment, she said, they haven't offered to share it with outpatient facilities like hers. While clinic staff have been able to evaluate patients and determine their risk, those who require testing are referred elsewhere. 

"We are still able to see and evaluate patients, but at this time are unable to provide the test," Sanford said.

"We have a responsibility to the community to give them access to the testing that they so definitely need; however, we have to do it in safe manner. And if we are unable to have our staff who will be administering this test in the appropriate personal protective equipment, then I can't in good conscience put my staff members at risk."

Twitter: kbouffardDN

Associated Press contributed.