Falling through the cracks of COVID-19

One Cottage Grove resident confirmed to have the virus serves as a cautionary tale

(Editor’s note: The name and gender of the affected person in this article has been hidden to protect their identity.)

As someone living with asthma and hay fever, Pat is accustomed to the occasional unwelcome bouts of coughing, troubled breathing and tightness in the chest.

“I thought it was that,” Pat said about the day they called their physician. “I didn’t actually expect the test to come back positive.”

On April 11, test results from an urgent care center in Springfield confirmed that Pat, a Cottage Grove resident, had contracted COVID-19.

When a case of COVID-19 is confirmed in Oregon, a mandatory reporting protocol requires physicians notify the local health authority. Upon learning of Pat’s case, Lane County Public Health (LCPH) swiftly contacted Pat and began the process of contact tracing.

According to Pat, officials at the agency surmised that it was likely Pat contracted COVID-19 while at their workplace on or before March 21. Ironically, this was the date Pat had resigned from their position as a healthcare worker at a long-term healthcare facility in Eugene due to the facility’s lack of personal protection equipment (PPE) and a fear of catching the virus.

“PPE was in very short supply and, being immunocompromised, I didn’t want to end up in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit),” Pat said. “Which, with my health problems, I probably wouldn’t come out of the ICU. But luckily, I did not get a severe case. I’m hoping it stays that way.”

In addition to the other symptoms, Pat has experienced fever, headaches and chest pain during the course of the infection.

“You basically lose all your energy,” said Pat.

Getting tested for the virus was no picnic, either.

At the urgent care center, Pat sat in the car as nurses came out to administer a swab for the test.

“They use a swab and they stick it way up your nose — clear up to basically your eye socket,” Pat said. “And they do this on each side of your nose.”

Pat recalled the resulting pain lasting a half hour.

“I recommend anyone who gets the test take Kleenex with them because they’re going to need it,” Pat said.

In quarantine since April 8, Pat has been isolated at home in downtown Cottage Grove and has taken care not to expose anyone to the virus, even adopting the habit of taking out garbage in the middle of the night when no one is around, careful not to touch any publicly-shared surfaces.

Without a support network of friends, however, Pat said their quarantine comes with some hardships.

At first, they received some help to adjust to their new lifestyle, but “the lady who brought me groceries when I was first put in quarantine now has COVID-19,” Pat said. “She thinks she got it in Douglas County.”

Just before quitting their job, Pat was lucky enough to purchase a healthy supply of toiletries, but the food has been somewhat of a worry.

“I just froze a lot of stuff,” Pat said. “My freezer isn’t very big, but you do what you’ve got to do.”

The length of Pat's quarantine, though, has been a growing concern as resources are finite and Pat is not clear on what would constitute an end to the quarantine.

Initially, Pat’s physician said two tests within 24 hours which come back negative would clear Pat to return to normal life. However, LCPH has also told Pat that they must be without symptoms for 72 hours.

Unfortunately, this may not yet be the case for Pat.

“I still have tightness in my chest. It’s hard to breathe. I’ve still got a little bit of a cough and an occasional headache, but other than that it seems to be getting better,” said Pat.

Closing in on a month since the diagnosis, Pat is eager to get tested again and have a definitive diagnosis of their current health condition.

Therein lies another snag.

Pat’s health insurance was tied to their job at the healthcare facility and rumors about test prices approaching $400 have caused Pat to hesitate in seeking testing.

“I don’t have that kind of money. I’ve heard tell that if you don’t have insurance, the government will pay for it,” Pat said with skepticism. “But if I go get these two tests 24 hours apart and I get a bill, how am I going to pay it?”

As no bill or invoice from the first test has come in the mail yet, Pat is left in a predicament of uncertainty.

Even so, the desire to be released from quarantine finally outweighed the fear of financial woes this Monday as Pat made an attempt to get tested at McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center’s drive-through COVID-19 test unit — where they hit another snag.

At the drive-through, Pat said their lack of health insurance was met with resistance and Pat was left with the impression they could not get a test.

In a call by The Sentinel to the medical center, a worker confirmed that a lack of insurance should not be a barrier to getting a test, though such patients would pay an out-of-pocket fee. Additionally, a physician’s order is required to administer the test.

In an unfortunate turn of events, Pat’s initial physician who recommended testing has since left the practice.

On top of all this uncertainty, Pat’s economic situation has gradually deteriorated as they have had no luck getting unemployment insurance from the state.

The Oregon Employment Department states that someone is considered “able to work” during the emergency declaration if they are “home sick because of the novel coronavirus or a condition with similar flu-like symptoms and they have not turned down an offer of work since they began being at home due to the sickness.”

Though feeling they already qualify, Pat has received a letter from the agency asking for more information to be mailed back, introducing another wrinkle in Pat’s efforts to escape the crisis.

“Right now, I can’t even go to the post office and they want this piece of paper back within five working days,” said Pat.

Moreover, phone lines to the department are notoriously jammed during this period of surging unemployment claims, putting Pat in a position in which they feel helpless to fix the issue.

Now Dana’s best bet rests with frequent check-up calls from LCPH; Pat is hoping one of those calls will give them the okay to leave the house.

“Even if it’s just for a walk,” said Pat. “And as soon as I figure out if the government will pay for this test, I’m going to insist that I get one.”

As a healthcare worker for the past 25 years, Pat also hopes to help other people in similar predicaments once they have recovered.

“But right now, I can’t help anybody do anything,” Pat said. “I can’t even help me.”

For the time being, Pat is engaging the hope that their story can serve as a cautionary tale for community members who are unimpressed by the threat of COVID-19.

“I’m hoping that all these naysayers — maybe a couple of them will come around to the fact that this is serious,” said Pat. “Okay, wearing a face mask isn’t pleasant. … But I had a mild case and didn’t like it. I can’t imagine being stuck in the hospital 30 or 40 or 50 days fighting for your own life.”

According to Oregon Health Authority data which began reporting COVID-19 cases by ZIP code on May 5, the Cottage Grove code 97424 has been confirmed to have anywhere between 1 to 9 cases and a total of 55 cases have been identified in Lane County as of press time.

“I’m really thankful that I ended up with a mild case,” said Pat. “They’ve been talking on the news about a second wave of infections and I’m hoping that I don’t get it again.”