Waiting to be tested for COVID-19 in T&T was a process marred by bureaucracy, confusion, and days, even weeks of waiting, for a result that may not come.
I am 23 years old, healthy, and have no pre-existing symptoms or respiratory ailments. I expected if I got the disease, it should have been manageable.
There have been several cases across the country where people who fit the symptom profile or those who even had recent travel had their swabs rejected for testing by CARPHA. I am one of those.
I had no travel history. My possible exposure to illness was Carnival Tuesday, where I interacted for five hours with foreigners and locals alike, crossing the stage at Queen’s Park Savannah.
Ten days later, it began with a dry cough and sore throat. I knew the air quality was good, and there was minimal Saharan dust in the air, so it’s not the novel coronavirus. Right?
The next day, the aches and fatigue arrived. It was debilitating. All I could do was sleep or remain in bed. Then came the fever. This was mild, with my temperatures reaching 38.5°C, according to my thermometer. However, the pain and soreness felt as if my skin would fall off to the touch. Thankfully, self-medicating broke my fever and alleviated the soreness.
Whatever this was, it was no joke. Lung pain and cough intensified. I struggled to catch my breath. Sharp pains on the periphery of my lungs shot through my body during the wheezy coughs. I rationalised that I could go to the doctor, get treated for a wheezy cough and pain, and be on my way, taking the necessary precautions. It can't be COVID-19.
My doctor treated me for the wheezing cough and what he deemed as mild pneumonia on day five. But I was now ordered to be in quarantine for no clear reason. We even did a blood panel for some comfort. It brought none.
I immediately began googling “symptoms of COVID-19” and “how to get tested for COVID-19 in T&T” after leaving his office. At 10 pm, March 11, I made the call to my County Medical Officer of Health, explaining my symptoms.
I distinctly remember being told, “Well, we can take the swab, but we have no confirmed cases in Trinidad and Tobago so it is unlikely you would be tested by CARPHA, even though you fit the symptom criteria.” We ended the call on the mutual understanding that if my situation deteriorated, head to the nearest public medical facility, and I’d be checked on tomorrow.
SWABBING, ISOLATION, UNCERTAINTY
On the afternoon of March 12, T&T recorded its first case of COVID-19. The testing situation had changed.
Bright and early on March 13, a team of doctors drove into my garage. Wearing my fitted and uncomfortable N95 mask, I spoke to them through a crack in the door. They explained the procedure, and one doctor suited up, head to toe in protective gear, which took about ten minutes.
The nasopharyngeal swab is uncomfortable at best, painful at its worse, but lasted no longer than 30-45 seconds. Think of a large cotton swab being forcefully pushed into your nose and twirled around. The swab was removed and placed into a vial of fluid. The doctor disrobed, and the team of doctors left, giving no time frame on when I can expect results. This was taken seven days after my symptoms arose, a critical but irrelevant detail at the time.
Three days later, I got a call from the county medical officers stating that CARPHA had refused to test my sample. They cited a guideline unbeknownst to us at the time, that they were only testing samples that were taken within five days of symptom onset. The frustration set in for both myself and the county medical officers handling my case.
At this point, I was already isolated for one week, and my doctors suggested I remain in self-isolation. After being refused by the only testing body in T&T, and having to stay isolated for another week, concern turned into anger and frustration. Health officials from the county regularly checked in which was reassuring.
I. Could. Not. Breathe. The coughing wouldn’t stop. I was gasping for air. My eyes became bloodshot red. My lungs felt tight, and the pain became severe again. I headed to San Fernando General Hospital, following the advice of a county health doctor.
I was attended to immediately. Between coughs, we detailed a timeline from the date of potential exposure to right there, sitting under a white tent with “Viral Area” in red spray paint, evoking a post-apocalyptic scene. Doctors and nurses garbed in head-to-toe white protective gear didn’t help the optics
At some point during the whole ordeal, I blacked out. I, a relatively healthy person, had blacked out.
I was quickly taken into isolation and kept overnight in the Isolation Unit for high care and intensive care patients
Poked and prodded, I was given several different medications during my stay. Most importantly, I was swabbed again, now nearly two weeks after my first symptoms. This time, the swabbing was horrible and bloody, coughing through the whole process. With the constant beeping in the room, I finally got some rest and awoke the next day feeling significantly better. I was discharged, but not before another round of medication. More injections. Wonderful.
THE WAITING GAME PERSISTED
Until the test results come back, I’m on a course of 7 medications which brought a host of its own problems. Drowsiness, lethargy, nausea, dehydration, diarrhoea, but I was improving.
It took three days to get a call on March 22 from doctors from the county health office stating that all their tests submitted to CARPHA have come back negative, including mine. A sigh of relief. I remained in self-isolation until March 27--now with just occasional shortness of breath and mild cough.
However, another challenge arose--getting the official test result from CARPHA. It has been a week since the call informally letting me know of my negative test result. But, I’m yet to receive any electronic or physical copy of my test result, which would have also let me know if I tested positive for any other respiratory ailment.
Regardless of the issues surrounding CARPHA, I’d like to thank the hard-working and diligent staff at SWRHA both in handling my case and treatment at the San Fernando General Hospital.