Shira Feder and Julia Naftulin, Insider: March 13, 2020
When news broke that Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson had become the first celebrities diagnosed with the coronavirus, it was a moment that struck fans — particularly in countries that have yet to feel the brunt of the virus — just how far and fast it is spreading.
But amid the praise for how Hanks and Wilson are handling the situation, many people have also called into question how quickly the couple were tested and diagnosed, while most of the general public in the US and many European countries struggle to even find out where to get a test.
It was a dramatic moment when medical officials raced onto the Chesapeake Energy Arena basketball court in Oklahoma City on Wednesday night to prematurely shut down the game the Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder teams were playing. They’d received a tip that Rudy Gobert, a basketball player for Utah Jazz, had tested positive for the new coronavirus.
Up until that point, testing had been sluggish. On Tuesday, 2,728 people were tested across the US — just over 50 people for each state. On Wednesday night, 58 tests were performed on athletes and team staff.
That day, the same day the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a pandemic, new stats emerged showing the US had done a total of five tests for every one million people, compared to with almost 4,000 tests per million people in South Korea.
“Other countries are testing much more broadly than we are,” William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, previously told Business Insider. “We are trotting along while they’re racing along.”
The only other people who were tested nearly as quickly appeared to be political officials, like Ted Cruz, Paul Gosar, and Matt Gaetz, who were exposed at conservative conference CPAC.
According to Diana Zuckerman, the president of the National Center for Health Research in Washington, DC, it makes sense that high-profile celebrities and athletes have more access to COVID-19 testing than the general public.
“I think there’s a lot of benefit for a physician to have celebrity patients, and that means that those physicians are going to do their very best to please their patients in ways that they might not work quite so hard for in a non-celebrity patient,” Zuckerman told Insider. “When something is available but limited, and there’s limited access but it exists, people with more fame are and more money are more likely to get it.”
America is lagging behind every other country when it comes to coronavirus testing
Without testing widely, it is impossible for public health officials to measure exactly how dangerous this outbreak is. As of Friday, CDC criteria states that anyone who had close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 patient within the past 14 days should get tested, as should people who traveled from a high-risk area within the past 14 days.
But many people who may have coronavirus do not fit this criteria.
The US has fallen far behind other countries when it comes to testing, plagued by delays, errors, and limited testing supplies. Finally, on Thursday, the FDA approved Roche’s test to be rolled out free. There are now also testing drive-thrus in Colorado and California. To speed things up, private labs like Quest Diagnostics have begun offering their own coronavirus tests for people with the money or insurance to pay for it.
“We’re certainly in a situation where there’s such a limit to the number of tests available. We hope the situation will change soon, but currently it’s a big problem,” Zuckerman said.
Regardless, she hopes there will be less favorable treatment.
“It’s a little bit hard to make the case that celebrities deserve to be tested before people who actually have symptoms,” said Zuckerman. “It isn’t just the celebrities, it’s also the people taking the subway to work.”
There’s another problem: tests are free for Americans, but ambulances and treatment are not
Those that have sought treatment for the coronavirus have faced another conundrum: some have gotten stuck with hefty bills.
The Miami Herald reported that one man was charged $3,270 for a test at the hospital. The New York Times reported that one man left a mandatory quarantine and received a bill for thousands. Another uninsured person was issued a $1,295 bill out-of-pocket.
“Anybody that wants a test can get a test,” Trump announced to reporters on March 6. But testing supplies are limited and to-test-or-not-to-test is a decision that has been left up to individual clinicians and healthcare provider’s judgments.
Trump also announced that insurers will pay for coronavirus treatments. The next day vice president Mike Pence clarified that insurers have waived copays for the coronavirus tests — not the coronavirus treatment, which may require respirators and hospital stays and can quickly get expensive.
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