The fever came first, then the aches.
Frank Ponciano—a 27-year-old ex-San Jose policy aide and community organizer—says it was March 8 when he got a bug of some kind. Over the next few days, his temperature rose, giving him chills. His head throbbed with a dull, steady pulse and it felt like mucous congested his lungs. Every cough stung his painfully sore throat.
By then, the global death toll from COVID-19 surpassed 3,500. Major events were getting canceled. After days of rest, drinking lots of water and avoiding a trip to the doctor for lack of insurance, it occurred to him that he should probably get tested.
Maybe what plagued him was the same wildly contagious respiratory disease that the whole world was talking about.
On March 12, he decided to call the Santa Clara County Public Health Department. Ponciano says it wasn’t really clear which phone number to use, so he reached out through the main administrative line.
When he finally reached an operator, she told him to try Valley Medical Center (VMC) instead. The VMC receptionist who picked up his call told Ponciano there were no tests available, but that he could come in for an assessment as long as he signed forms agreeing to pay all the charges incurred. With news reports circulating at the time putting the cost of testing at anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 or more, he says he had little choice but to decline the offer. And so, the receptionist wished him well.
“That was the end of that,” Ponciano recounts.
As someone who’s otherwise healthy, athletic and pretty well adapted to various flu strains his schoolteacher wife brings home, he felt lucky that his body withstood whatever it was that sickened him. But he felt uneasy about being a potential carrier for a virus that’s fatal to potentially 3 percent or more of the people who get it.
Like an untold number of people in Santa Clara County who have fallen ill but couldn’t get tested, Ponciano may never know what sickened him.
At least he had the good sense to self-quarantine.
“Testing, testing, testing” has been the mantra repeated by World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Widespread diagnostic assays, contact tracing and targeted isolation of the infected and the people they may have exposed have been cited as key reasons that South Korea has been able to “flatten the curve” of its outbreak while the U.S. has been running blind.
Earlier this month, CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield promised that all Americans, insured or otherwise, can now get free coronavirus testing.
But there’s another hurdle that persists to this day: a dearth of actual tests.
As San Jose Inside reported last week, Santa Clara County says it has been ramping up testing with drive-through clinics. But those are by appointment-only and still require a doctor’s referral. And the challenge now is getting any data from not just the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention, but the county Public Health Department, which has repeatedly ignored requests from reporters for the latest statistics.
In a March 19 phone call with the county Emergency Operations Center, after days of unanswered emails, a spokesman said he would try to find out how many testing kits were available, how many samples each kit could test and how many samples were required for an accurate read for each patient. He said he would have some information by the following day—and if he didn’t, he would have an explanation for why not.
Friday passed with no update. Then the weekend. On Monday, we’ll try our luck again.
While the number of total tests conducted in Santa Clara County remains unknown, we know the results. On Sunday, the county Public Health Department reported that the number of positive COVID-19 cases rose to 302—a 114 percent jump from Saturday and a 154 percent leap from the day before that. Ten people have died in this county, the ninth a woman in her 60s and the 10th a woman in her 40s.
For as long as the county withholds data about how much testing it’s conducted, the public will have no idea about what mortality rate that represents or where many of those who tested positive were exposed to the virus in the first place.
It’s easier to understand why the CDC, under the Trump administration’s purview, has stayed mum. In the first several weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, President Trump openly advocated against testing to keep the numbers down for fear of how they would affect the public’s perception of him.
But it’s harder to understand why Santa Clara County would opt to keep us in the dark.