On Tuesday night, a Santa Fe woman started feeling the symptoms.
A fever, aches and chills, exhaustion, and pain from coughing.
The thought of coronavirus crossed the 64-year-old Santa Fe resident’s mind, and so she called a health care provider, who recommended she get tested for COVID-19. Not only was the woman exhibiting symptoms, the provider pointed out, she had an autoimmune disease that could make her more vulnerable.
The next morning, the woman, who asked not to be identified, was tested at Presbyterian Healthcare Services’ drive-up site in Santa Fe. But after long waits and delays, she said she might not get her results until Monday — five days later.
“I do think it’s ridiculous we don’t have widespread testing available with a quick turnaround,” said the woman, who declined to be identified because she fears alarming friends and neighbors who don’t know she was tested.
“It’s a scary process to go through,” she said, “especially when we don’t have quick results.”
The long wait illustrates not only the medical system’s inability to quickly test people for the coronavirus, but also the emotional toll the process can take on patients. The woman said she faced the physical pain of being ill, the anxiety of not knowing the results and the logistical confusion of trying to locate them.
On top of that, family and friends have worried constantly about her and also wondered whether they might have contracted the virus.
As states across the nation have struggled to ramp up testing capability for the novel coronavirus, New Mexico has shared in the struggle. State officials, health care providers and labs have said repeatedly in recent days they aim to increase capacity, but they have not yet announced significant breakthroughs.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has said the state can run about 700 tests a day, between the state lab and TriCore Reference Laboratories, and has often chided the federal government for hamstringing the state’s effort to boost that number.
TriCore said this week it was working to use “high-capacity testing platforms” that would increase the state’s capacity, and one of them could potentially run 1,000 COVID-19 tests in a batch. But TriCore has not yet said whether it has succeeded in using those platforms for coronavirus testing.
“We will alert the community when we have an update,” TriCore spokeswoman Beth Bailey said.
When asked what would cause a patient to wait five days for a COVID-19 result, Presbyterian said it was “not experiencing a lack of resources that would impact testing time” and added it would need the patient’s permission to look at the specifics of her case.
It did say it adheres to the Department of Health’s testing guidelines and that it aims to give results “as soon as possible.”
“As additional information has become available about rates of coinfection with other seasonal respiratory infections as well as timelines for test results, we have been adapting our testing methodology to provide results to patients as soon as possible,” said Dr. Jeff Salvon-Harman, medical director for infection control at Presbyterian Healthcare Services.
Salvon-Harman added that per new guidance from the Department of Health, patients “are now simultaneously tested for other respiratory infections that can provide valuable information about what is making them ill.”
That didn’t seem to be true in the Santa Fe woman’s case.
When she went to the drive-up testing site Wednesday morning, she was told she needed to have a flu test done first in order to rule out that possibility. She said workers at Presbyterian said she would have those results within four to six hours. If they were negative, Presbyterian would send the sample on to a lab for COVID-19 testing.
She said staff members at the site were “incredibly kind and very compassionate” and that it was “clear they’re intending to do their best.”
But though she was told she would get a call that evening with results, none came.
“The next day, I called at 11 a.m. and they said they were so swamped that the results would take about 48 hours,” she said.
By Friday morning, those 48 hours had come and gone and there were still no results on Presbyterian’s patient portal, the woman said.
When the results finally appeared later Friday, they showed she tested negative for the flu, meaning the sample presumably would be tested for COVID-19.
“That means the whole things takes five days now,” she said.
Asked about the delays, state officials referred questions to Presbyterian.
“While the New Mexico Department of Health does not have a strict requirement for receiving a flu test prior to testing for COVID-19, we do encourage providers to look for other causes of disease, not just COVID-19,” Human Services Department spokeswoman Jodi McGinnis Porter said.
Presbyterian also said it was closing its drive-up site in Santa Fe over the weekend “as we continue to evaluate our staff resources,” and would open it again Monday. The provider said it would continue to test patients over the weekend who “have already been screened and referred for testing by the New Mexico Department of Health.”
The woman said the delays have been tough for her and her family.
“It’s turned out to be such a hot-button issue within our family,” she said. “There’s all this interpersonal drama that goes along with the logistics. Now that I’m experiencing that personally, I’m starting to understand why people want the results so quickly.
“They’re all freaking out and we’re getting all of their freak-outs,” she added. “It’s intense and I’m sick.”
To avoid more panic, the woman decided not to tell more people. It’s also why she asked not to be identified. She said she’s part of a community in their 60s, 70s and 80s, some with underlying health conditions.
“People could get so frightened,” she said.
But those results still haven’t come.