On Friday, March 20, my husband and I drove to Massachusetts General Hospital to be tested for COVID-19. The process was swift and we were reassured to hear that the hospital, which had recently developed its own test, would call us with results in 24 to 72 hours. Six days later, we still are waiting to learn if we are infected.
On the surface, our story is not unusual. Newspapers across the country have reported on chronic test shortages and long laboratory delays as the number of suspected cases continues to climb. Indeed, as Harvard affiliates, we were privileged to receive tests quickly and with relative ease. Yet what distinguishes our experience is simple: My husband is a radiation oncologist who, until he developed symptoms, was treating patients on the pediatric oncology service at MGH. As long as his test results are pending, he cannot return to the hospital.
Harvard’s healthcare workers are the front line of our community’s fight against this virus. They should receive the fastest test results we are capable of producing, but they are not. Instead, my husband and many of his colleagues are furloughed indefinitely at the very time when we need their expertise most. As its healthcare workers face impossible decisions about patient coverage and the rationing of personal protection equipment, Harvard must act quickly to expedite their results.
The recent news that University President Lawrence S. Bacow and his wife tested positive for COVID-19 demonstrates that our hospitals have the capacity to turn around results in less than a day. In his email to the Harvard community, President Bacow described a swift medical response: He and his wife reported symptoms to their doctors on March 23 and were tested that same day. Like my husband, President Bacow was tested one day after he developed symptoms. Unlike my husband, he had received his results and could share those results with his employer within 24 hours.
In short, the system worked as it should. I join my students and colleagues in wishing the Bacows a quick recovery. But at a time when physicians and other essential medical staff at Harvard hospitals are furloughed — and their colleagues who might otherwise be working remotely are called into the hospital to provide coverage — the contrast between their case and ours is telling. The swift turnaround of President Bacow and his wife’s results reveals that we are seeing the effects of a growing trend of inequity in both access to and speed of COVID-19 testing within our own community.
According to President Bacow’s email, he and his wife have been working from home and practicing self-distancing measures since March 14 and, following Department of Health protocols, will continue to remain at home for at least the next 14 days. Those same protocols are currently requiring my husband, and fellow residents across several Harvard hospitals, to remain in home quarantine until they receive a negative test result. Even healthcare workers who have tested negative for the virus have seen their furlough stretch on as backlogs delay necessary clearance from their hospital’s occupational health department.
Across the world, furloughed workers place an added burden on healthcare systems that are already trying to limit hospital staff exposure, as that exposure leads to staggering rates of infection among medical staff and compromised patient care. As it becomes clear that we cannot wait for federal assistance on widespread testing, some areas are already prioritizing medical professionals.
If we have the capacity to return a test result within 24 hours, why are Harvard’s physicians and other essential medical staff still waiting nearly a week for results? While President Bacow and his wife continue their self-isolation at home, departments across the Harvard hospitals face yet another burden on a system already under tremendous strain: a staffing problem. If the number of coronavirus cases continues to rise — and it is expected to — this staffing problem will soon transform into a crisis of patient care.
Julia B. Tejblum is a first-year preceptor in Expository Writing and a graduate of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.