'Testing Is Not Fairly Administered': Immune-Compromised Mother Fights To Get Tested After Son Develops COVID-19

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Massachusetts has had its first death as a result of the coronavirus — a man in his 80s from Suffolk County. He had pre-existing health concerns that made him more vulnerable to the virus, according to the state Department of Public Health.

Catherine King and her son Oscar. (photo courtesy Catherine King)
Catherine King and her son Oscar. (photo courtesy Catherine King)

Catherine King is also at greater risk of contracting the virus. Her 17-year-old son, Oscar, tested positive for the virus this week. Catherine is also a cancer survivor, and her immune system is compromised.

Even with those risk factors, and with King starting to show symptoms, the Boston-area resident says she was repeatedly told she couldn't be tested for the coronavirus. Finally, Friday afternoon, she was tested. She spoke with WBUR's All Things Considered host Lisa Mullins about how she's doing and what it's been like taking care of her son while he's in isolation.

Interview Transcript

Right now I have a pretty mild scratchy sore throat and a runny nose. I have no fever, no cough.

Lisa Mullins: You were just tested a short time ago this afternoon. Where did you go, and what happened?

I went to [Brigham and Women's Hospital]. I had had to jump through a few hoops to get there ... I was called this morning and given the information and the instructions as to what to do. I had a drive to the address, and I was expecting a tent, but I didn't really see a tent ...  It's an ambulance bay ... I drove up to where the healthcare workers were and showed my driver's license, which is what I was told to do, through the window ... And when she approached the car with the test kit, that was at that point that I rolled down the window, she told me how to hold my head, etc. ... She did the test. It was over really quickly. It hurt, but it was OK ...  And then I just drove away.

And how soon do you get the results?

I think 24 to 48 hours.

What made you feel as though you wanted to get tested?

Because I've been taking care of my son, who has tested positive.

And your son is 17 years old. He's a senior at a local high school. We want to hear from him. He he is a little bit radio shy. So we asked him if he would record himself talking a little bit about his own experience. Let's listen to that.

Oscar King: It was really just a consistent fever for two days and extremely fatigued. I didn't have much of a cough, which I was surprised with because I do have asthma.

And he has some advice for other teenagers, as well.

I think the biggest piece of advice I have is the social distancing. Somehow I got [the coronavirus]. And you just never know who you're really passing it on to, because it could really affect a family's grandparents, parents, siblings.

Your son doesn't know how he was infected, but he was out and around with friends, [and] in stores where he might have come in contact with people. And surprisingly, there were few precautions taken at the health care facility when he went to get tested — meaning he could have unwittingly spread the virus. Tell us about his experience.

He said when he went to the hospital that, you know, the clipboard where you give your information, he passed that to the person behind the desk. She took it. She wasn't wearing gloves ... He held up his insurance card to her so that she could take the information off it. She took the insurance card from him, again, not wearing gloves. At that point he was symptomatic, because that was the same day as he was, you know, sneezing and coughing.

He has asthma, but thankfully, he seems to have a mild form of COVID-19. What has it been like to take care of him?

And I think mild here is, you know, relative, because he did have a fever and pretty bad fatigue and muscle aches for a couple of days. He was coughing and sneezing by the second or third day. But he did have a fever and was very uncomfortable for the first couple of days. And what it's been like caring for him, it's been difficult. There are three of us in the house. Thankfully, our house is large enough that we can separate out a bathroom. So he's using one bathroom. He's going from his bedroom to the bathroom. I have a table set up outside his bedroom door where I leave food. We are being extremely cautious because both my husband and I are immunocompromised for various reasons. It's been really, really difficult in terms of ... the isolation and the anxiety. It's just, you're constantly trying to figure out, 'Did I do that right? Did I touch that by accident?', etcetera, etcetera.

So you're dealing with your own situation now. As you said, you're immunocompromised. You've had lymphoma in the past. Your husband has a lung disease resulting from an autoimmune disorder and is on immunosuppressants. So you both have increased risk factors. Has your husband been tested as yet?

No, he hasn't. The advice that we've both gotten from our health care providers is that, you know, we're not symptomatic. So we don't fit the criteria for testing.

From what you said, you are symptomatic now.

Exactly. I mean, I've been symptomatic in that I've had this ... a scratchy throat doesn't count, apparently. That's what I'm hearing. You have to have a cough and basically shortness of breath. That's what I keep getting asked.

So here you are living with a young man who has tested positive. You're immunocompromised, as is your husband. You had a hard time even getting tested. It has just happened. Can you tell us what kind of hoops you had to go through to finally get tested?

I've called several hospitals. I called initially for my son. I was try to get my son tested on Tuesday. And I had called [Brigham and Women's] Faulkner Hospital, and they were willing to test my son; but he would have had to go through the emergency department. And I didn't particularly want him going through the emergency department, in case he didn't have [the virus] and in case he picked it up [there]. They would have tested me. I had to go through my primary care; my primary care said I didn't fit the criteria. The nurse hotline at the Brigham said I didn't fit the criteria. I called Carney [Hospital] because my friend had gotten tested. My friend got tested based on the fact that she was with my son ten days ago. Carney said they would test me, that I fit the criteria for them. They would test me, but I needed a prescription from my provider. My provider wouldn't give it to me, or [the] supervisors. In all fairness, I think she probably would, but her supervisors wouldn't okay it.

So how did you end up getting tested?

I ended up calling three times the nurse hotline at the Brigham. And finally I got somebody who recognized that I did fit the criteria. So I got a call this morning.

What have you learned ... that other people may not understand about this whole process?

About the illness and about the process, I think what I've learned is what I suspected for a long time — that there's a ton of this [virus] in the community, because it's easy, it seems easy enough to pick it up. What I've learned about the process is that testing is not fairly administered across the board. A whole basketball team that are asymptomatic can get tested. That is not OK, because somebody who's caring for someone who has this illness is more at risk than a basketball player ... And it depends on your provider. It does look to me like it depends on your provider. It depends on the hospital they're affiliated with, and it depends on what lab that facility is contracted with. That's what it looks like to me.

This segment aired on March 20, 2020.


Headshot of Lisa Mullins

Lisa Mullins Host, All Things Considered
Lisa Mullins is the voice of WBUR’s All Things Considered. She anchors the program, conducts interviews and reports from the field.


Headshot of Lynn Jolicoeur

Lynn Jolicoeur Producer/Reporter
Lynn Jolicoeur is the field producer for WBUR's All Things Considered. She also reports for the station's various local news broadcasts.



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