Limited testing leaves many sick Minnesotans without answers

Allison Tennyson has been sick with COVID-19-like symptoms.
Allison Tennyson, of Minneapolis, has been sick since March 20, and has gotten medical care, but not a test despite COVID-19-like symptoms. She said she's been taking her dog, Dezzi, on a walk outside, but she's concerned because "I don't know if I am a carrier. It just makes me nervous."
Courtesy of Allison Tennyson

The actual number of Minnesota’s COVID-19 cases is likely much higher than the number of cases that have been confirmed through testing, state health officials said on Friday. Because of persistent testing shortages, thousands of Minnesotans with flu-like symptoms haven’t been able to get tested for the coronavirus.

Stefan Gildemeister, the state’s health economist, said the state may have identified as little as 1 percent of all cases through testing so far. As of Friday, Minnesota health officials have confirmed 1,336 COVID-19 cases across the state via 33,894 tests.

Allison Tennyson, of Minneapolis, is one of the many people in the state who have COVID-19-like symptoms. Tennyson, 30, has been sick since March 20 and has received some medical care — but not a test.

“I inquired about [getting tested] and my doctor just told me that they're only saving tests for critically ill patients,” Tennyson told MPR News host Tom Crann on All Things Considered. “It would have been nice to know for sure if it was coronavirus because, I mean, now it's been three weeks.”

The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

When did you first seek medical help?

That was on Tuesday, March 24. I had a fever that started Friday and I had some shortness of breath. And then that Tuesday, I started coughing. So, immediately I thought, “Oh, OK. This could be COVID-19.” And I had another really bad fever. So, I just contacted my doctor and they told me it sounds like coronavirus and that I had to do an online virtual appointment.

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It was sort of an online questionnaire. And 10 minutes later, I got an email that said — your symptoms are most consistent with coronavirus. It just said — self-isolate, don't leave your home. And then [it] had like three criteria that you had to meet before you could end your quarantine.

What happened next?

A woman wears a face mask.
Allison Tennyson had a virtual doctor visit with an iPad.
Courtesy of Allison Tennyson

My breathing got worse. I have asthma to start with. So, I was a little concerned. I messaged my doctor and told her it was hard to speak out words.

She scheduled a phone consult with me. And then at that point, she told me that she felt that whatever virus I had had become pneumonia, and she prescribed me a round of antibiotics.

The fever kind of went away until two days ago. Yesterday, I contacted my doctor and told her it got worse. So, I actually went to the emergency room.

What were you told during the ER visit?

They did a ultrasound [check] of my chest to make sure it wasn't pneumonia that had stayed around. So, they got to clear on that and they discharged me.

You’re 30 years old. This sounds like a pretty serious medical situation. Have you ever felt this sick?

I've never been sick for this long. That's why I was so concerned.

Now it's been three weeks. And, you know, I'll be honest, I've taken my dog on a walk. I've gone outside. And I would have liked to know [if I have the virus]. I don't know if I am a carrier. It just makes me nervous. I feel negligent as a citizen.

Have you given any thought to how you got this or does anyone else you know have it or anything like that?

No, I honestly don't know. My boyfriend, his job is a delivery driver. So he was driving all over Minnesota and he had complained about feeling a little tired and achy a couple of days prior to when I got my original fever. So I don't know if it was from him.

I worked at Lutheran Social Service. I work in social work in our building. We have a lot of people coming in and out.

What's been the hardest part about it?

For me, [the hardest part is] not being able to see my parents for so long. At this point, my dad is 78. My mom, she's in her 50s. I just get worried. I don't want to be coming around them if I'm sick.