Tested or not, Las Vegans with coronavirus symptoms try to stay positive in isolation

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John Locher / AP

A health care worker with the UNLV School of Medicine tests a patient for the coronavirus at a drive-thru testing site Tuesday, March 24, 2020, in Las Vegas.

Wed, Mar 25, 2020 (2 a.m.)

Awaiting a COVID-19 test result, Shira has been isolated in her Henderson home since Sunday. Unable to spend time with her family until she receives the results of her test in a few days, she did her best to celebrate her daughter’s birthday on Monday, who turned 10.

“I FaceTimed into the kitchen yesterday while my husband and kids made the birthday cake, and today I am limited to FaceTime to sing happy birthday,” Shira wrote in an online message Monday.

The spread of COVID-19 has upended life in Las Vegas, closing businesses, leaving thousands jobless and forcing people to work and study from home. For those who suspect they have the virus, daily life is even more challenging as potential patients are asked to stay isolated from others in their household, whether they have been confirmed for COVID-19 or not.

Shira, who declined to give her real name since she might not have coronavirus and does not want to alarm those who know her, was tested for the novel virus at Southwest Medical Associates on Rancho Drive after arriving with a cough, difficulty breathing, extreme fatigue, and pressure in her chest, she said. The 36-year-old guesses that she received a test because she had developed unrelated upper respiratory symptoms a month earlier, potentially putting her at greater risk for complications from coronavirus.

But others who have shown coronavirus symptoms similar to Shira’s haven’t been able to get a test, including a North Las Vegas mother whose son was exposed to a confirmed COVID-19 case at his school.

Cynthia Smith’s son developed symptoms on March 17, three days after his school, Freedom Classical Academy in North Las Vegas, notified families of a case there. Initially suffering from congestion, Smith’s son, 10, soon developed a heavy cough, a fever and intense fatigue. On March 20, Smith’s husband called their pediatrician, who said their son probably had coronavirus, but that they wouldn’t administer a test because testing was limited.

“We just needed to basically isolate him for two to three weeks and wait it out,” Smith said. “There was nothing they could do.”

Despite keeping her son confined to his room, Smith developed symptoms herself on March 18 and went to the MountainView Hospital emergency room two days later. Unlike her son, the 32-year-old experienced shortness of breath and chest pain in addition to a cough and extreme fatigue.

“I waited because I knew there was a shortage of tests, and I didn’t want somebody that really needed it at that point to have it taken away from them. But my symptoms kept getting worse,” Smith said.

Despite her son’s ties to a confirmed coronavirus patient and her own asthma and heart condition, the doctor who treated Smith at the emergency room declined to administer a test because her symptoms weren’t severe enough, she said. Only patients who had been admitted to the intensive care unit with coronavirus symptoms were getting tests, according to Smith.

She left the hospital with a slip of paper containing an unconfirmed diagnosis — "chest pain of unclear etiology," it said — as well as an order to self-isolate at home. She should assume that she had coronavirus, the doctor told her.

Nevada has tested 4,232 people for coronavirus as of Tuesday afternoon. In total, 278 have tested positive. Clark County has confirmed 249 cases of the highly contagious disease, which typically causes respiratory illness symptoms such as fever, coughing, sore throat, shortness of breath, fatigue and body aches.

Testing for the disease has been limited, with the Southern Nevada Health District recommending that medical facilities reserve tests “for those at highest risk,” Health District spokesperson Jennifer Sizemore said.

In Clark County, one’s likelihood of getting tested varies based on the health facility as well as the patient’s risk factor, said Brian Labus, an assistant professor at UNLV’s School of Public Health. Part of the reason that some hospitals are only testing patients who are admitted for care is because a confirmed diagnosis makes it easier for doctors to treat them, Labus said.

“The highest priority is basically people who need that as part of their critical care, so if you’re in the ICU, doctors need to know what they’re dealing with,” he said.

However, some facilities are trying to open up testing to the public, Labus said. For example, UNLV Medicine began offering free appointment-only curbside testing Tuesday, including to those who have mild or moderate symptoms, he said. He expects that similar efforts will pop up across the valley soon as more tests become available.

But many health facilities are still rationing tests to patients with the most life-threatening symptoms, suggesting that the number of infections in Southern Nevada could be much higher than the confirmed cases. While the rationing of tests makes sense to North Las Vegas resident William Ramirez, he finds it frustrating to see celebrities, politicians and “people of money and power,” including some with mild or no symptoms, get tests while those who are sick do not.

Ramirez went to the MountainView emergency room on March 18 with a heavy cough, aches and pains, shortness of breath and a mild fever, the 51-year-old said. Doctors tested him for the flu and checked his vitals but did not give him a coronavirus test despite his symptoms, Ramirez said.

The doctor told him that because of his relative health, the hospital did not want to use a test on him. Ramirez would’ve been advised to stay home for two weeks whether he tested positive or not, he added.

“(The doctor) said, ‘I just want you to go home and rest,’” he said, adding that his treatment at MountainView was “phenomenal.”

Since then, Ramirez has been isolated in his room. Ramirez says his condition seems to be gradually improving, although the fatigue has been unbearable at times. This week, he became exhausted just from texting people about his condition.

“That’s how powerful whatever is out there is,” Ramirez said.

Although Shira and her family will soon know whether she has COVID-19, the experience of self-isolation has nonetheless been challenging. Not only do they need to stay home all day, but now her children, ages 7 and 10, also can’t see their mom, she said.

“I am concerned about long-term impacts of stress and anxiety on all of us, but particularly (my) children,” Shira wrote in an online message.

Meanwhile, someone she came into contact with who has developed “the hallmark symptoms” of coronavirus is unable to get a test because their fever isn’t high enough, Shira said.

“If the tests are that easy for some, and not others, how many in the community already have it?” she wrote.

As Smith continues to assess her own symptoms, her home life has been upended. Her husband just lost his job at a resort, so he has been at home caring for their 4-year-old daughter, while Smith and her son rest in separate rooms. The siblings are close, Smith said, and her daughter often begs to play with her brother.

“They literally FaceTime from the living room to his room,” Smith said. “It’s just really sad, and not knowing makes it worse because you don’t know what to do, or how long we have to keep this going.”

While she recognizes that self-isolation is the best way to prevent the spread of coronavirus among suspected patients, Smith said the mental toll of self-isolation on top of the symptoms has been extremely difficult. Getting tested would at least give her and her family some clarity, she said.

“We lost all of our income and everything, and then we get hit with this illness, and you can’t even tell me what it is?” she said.

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