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If you're sick, when can you get the COVID-19 test? Many Montanans are unsure

Posted at 2:30 PM, Mar 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-17 19:53:05-04

BILLINGS — Montana health officials said they’re expecting a thousand new test kits into our state by Wednesday, but Montanans remain confused regarding availability of the tests.

Meanwhile there is a national concern over "lag time" at the federal level.

"The federal government must increase capacity so states can more broadly perform testing," said John Grassy with the state of Montana's Joint Information Center.

Grassy is the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation public information officer who is helping answer media questions about the coronavirus.

He says if the federal government can increase test capacity, then officials in Montana may be able to understand where COVID-19 is in communities and slow the spread.

Although Grassy said there is no "backlog" with testing kits, there has been a "lag time" in increasing bandwidth to test at the federal level.

"But we are holding the federal government accountable to its commitment to ramping up testing capacity as quickly as possible," Grassy said in an email.

Those concerns are also being felt at the local levels, as patients head to their area hospital with symptoms seeking answers.

“I worried that it could be this new virus thing that’s going around," Erika Miller of Billings said in an video interview with Q2.

Miller, who lives and works in Billings, says she left work Friday with symptoms of nausea and vomiting and then by the next day she had a fever and heavy cough.

However, she says, when she went to the doctor to be tested, she wasn't able to get a COVID-19 sample.

"They took me into some sort of germ free 'pod.' They administered two tests. An influenza swab and a corona virus swab. The flu swab came back negative," Miller said.

She said she feels like the coronavirus should have been tested because of her symptoms.

"I was told because I hadn't been out of the country and I couldn't prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that I was in contact with someone who tested positive, they wouldn't be testing that swab," said Miller.

As of Tuesday, 311 people in Montana have been tested for COVID-19, according to the state health department. Eight have tested positive, including two in Yellowstone County. A ninth Montana also tested positive while out of state in Maryland.

Miller believes the process for whom to test is confusing.

“It sounds like they don’t have a lot of actual test kits," she said. “So they’re like kind of pick and choosing who they test, but you can't really know if someone has it or not unless they get tested.”

Meanwhile, Grassy said, Montana officials are looking to work with the federal government to increase capacity to test.

"We know testing more broadly gives us a better idea of where COVID-19 is in our communities and helps us make decisions to slow the spread," he said.

For now—many like Miller are using up sick and vacation leave, wondering if self-quarantine is even needed.

"Eventually I am going to run out of vacation pay and will have no other choice but to go back to work whether I am experiencing symptoms or not," she said.