The CDC provides laboratory test kits for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, which causes the COVID-19 disease. The kits are are provided to U.S. state and local public health laboratories, Department of Defense labs and some international labs. (Photo provided by CDC.)

Call it test anxiety, but not the kind you might remember from school.

With a shortage of COVID-19 testing kits available at Oklahoma’s state lab, public health officials are prioritizing who can get tested for the virus, but it’s causing high anxiety among some patients. State officials said Wednesday they’re waiting on shipments of the raw materials that go into the testing kits to come from the federal government.

The American health care system is built on testing, and in normal times, patients are urged to get tested for all types of diseases, from regular mammograms and prostate exams for cancer to flu tests and colorectal screening.

But in the face of the new, fast-spreading coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, testing has become a global flashpoint. Other countries suffering outbreaks are far ahead of the United States when it comes to testing, in part due to delays by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC initially resisted using private companies to develop the test, and the first batch of U.S. tests may have been defective, according to national news reports.

The Oklahoma State Department of Health, located on 10th Street near the State Capitol. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

To date, the Oklahoma State Department of Health’s public health lab has done 517 tests for COVID-19, officials said Wednesday morning. It’s unclear how many tests have been done at private labs in the state, but the state is asking for daily reports under an executive order signed Tuesday by Gov. Kevin Stitt.  

The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Oklahoma rose to 29 on Wednesday, up from 17 the day before, the health department said. The state also saw its first confirmed case of a resident of a nursing home, although officials said that person was in the hospital already and isn’t expected to return to the nursing home after treatment.

Laurence Burnsed

State Epidemiologist Laurence Burnsed said there’s a nationwide shortage of the liquid used for COVID-19 testing, called a reagent. Oklahoma ordered its maximum number of reagents, or enough for 500 specimens, but was told there will be delays. The number of state testing kits fell to about 100 by Wednesday afternoon, he said.

“We have to prioritize individuals who are at greatest risk or who are serving high-risk populations,” Burnsed said at a news conference Wednesday.

As the state awaits more testing capacity, state and local officials are recommending mitigation measures like self-quarantine, social distancing and curtailing public contact by closing bars, restaurants, gyms, theatres and other places where people gather in large numbers.

But the availability of quick testing in several high-profile COVID-19 cases in Oklahoma has led many to question if there’s been a two-tier testing system in the state.

On March 11, the NBA game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz was suspended after it was learned that a Jazz player had tested positive for coronavirus. A total of 58 players were tested using kits from the state’s public health lab.

On Tuesday this week, after a state Senate staffer tested positive for the virus, about 30 senators and staff were swabbed and the samples sent to a private lab for testing. Use of that lab didn’t cut into the state’s supply.

The State Capitol has been closed to the general public because of the coronavirus, but is open to Senate and House members, other state office holders, staff members and credentialed media. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

In both instances, the people initially found to be infected worked or appeared at places with large public gatherings, which may have prompted immediate testing.

Senate spokesman Aaron Cooper said the Senate person who tested positive for COVID-19 was already under care at OU Medicine, which already had the private lab under contract.

“Given the nature of Senate workspace at the Capitol and the individual’s potential contact with senators and Senate personnel, those same health care professionals recommended testing and self-isolation by senators and staff to help avoid any potential spreading of the virus due to the fact senators come from communities all across the state,” Cooper said in an email. He added the Senate didn’t incur any cost because Senate personnel’s insurers will be invoiced.

But Oklahoma City resident Chelsea Kennedy, 29, took offense at the quick testing of NBA players.

Kennedy was to finally get a COVID-19 test Wednesday after learning there was a positive case at her doctor’s office last week. She had visited the doctor last week after feeling sick and came away with a diagnosis of strep throat.

Chelsea Kennedy

Kennedy is in a high-risk population because she has an autoimmune disease. But she said she got few answers after calling the Health Department’s COVID-19 help line. They urged her to get tested at an urgent care clinic over the weekend. She called several clinics in the Oklahoma City area but none had the test or testing materials.

“I’m really frustrated with the state because they tested 58 basketball players and got results in less than 24 hours, but Oklahomans themselves aren’t able to find the tests,” Kennedy said. “I’m just really disappointed in the lack of testing available for normal people. I just want to make sure I’m not a risk to the public beyond having strep.”

This sign and notice appear at the entrance to the Oklahoma State Department of Education building near the State Capitol. (David Fritze/Oklahoma Watch)

For Vicky V., a 67-year-old grandmother in Edmond, the uncertainty over COVID-19 testing has been frustrating. She returned from a trip to Disney World on March 7 but felt bad on the flight home from Florida. Initially, she felt like she had a cold, but then it began feeling like the flu. (Oklahoma Watch agreed not to identify her fully for medical privacy reasons.)

“Right away, I distanced myself from my family and my husband,” Vicky said in a phone interview. “I went to a different part of the house. On Thursday, I went to the doctor and I really kind of wanted to be tested (for COVID-19), but I didn’t ask to be tested. I just thought they would test me because I had all the symptoms, except I did not have a high fever.”

The major symptoms of the disease are fever, persistent cough and shortness of breath. Symptoms can appear from 2 to 14 days after exposure.

Her doctor tested her for flu, which came back negative, but said she had bronchitis and prescribed her antibiotics and steroids. Vicky said she felt worse over the weekend and went back to her doctor on Monday to insist on a COVID-19 test. But first her doctor wanted to rule out strep throat.

“I said, ‘I feel, I feel like you need to test me. I take care of my 87-year-old mother and I have all the symptoms except a super-high fever,’” Vicky said. “‘And I know that I haven’t been out of the country, but I was at Disney World.’”

A nurse wearing a protective mask, clear face shield, paper uniform and booties administered the COVID-19 test at her doctor’s office, taking four swabs in her nostrils and inside her cheek before sending them to the state lab.

Vicky was still awaiting the results of the COVID-19 test on Wednesday. But she said she’s lucky because her children and adult grandchildren are helping care for her mother, who lives nearby, as she continues to self-isolate. Her husband went to the family’s lake house on Monday.

“I figured since I’ve been sick for 11 days already that I’ll not have to be hospitalized,” she said. “At this point it’s gone on for so long that I think I will not be upset if I have it because I’m probably at the end of it and I may have some immunity so I can help others.”

Meanwhile, the Health Department tried to quell test anxiety in an unsigned “fact or fiction” post on its website Wednesday.

“Our ‘need to know’ is overriding our common sense – which tells us that regardless of the results, common cold, COVID-19 or flu, for the majority of us, a doctor will tell us to stay home, rest, get plenty of fluids, and avoid contact with friends and family until we are fever free and without symptoms, or about 14 days to be cautious,” the department said.  

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