Politicians, celebrities, social media influencers and even NBA teams have been tested for the new coronavirus. But as that list of rich, famous and powerful people grows by the day, so do questions about whether they are getting access to testing that is denied to other Americans.
Some of these high-profile people say they are feeling ill and had good reason to be tested. Others argue that those who were found to be infected and then isolated themselves provided a good example to the public.
But with testing still in short supply in areas of the country, leaving health care workers and many sick people unable to get diagnoses, some prominent personalities have obtained tests without exhibiting symptoms or having known contact with someone who has the virus, as required by some testing guidelines. Others have refused to specify how they were tested.
Such cases have provoked accusations of elitism and preferential treatment about a testing system that has already been plagued with delays and confusion, and now stirred a new national debate that has reached the White House — with President Donald Trump being asked at a Wednesday news conference whether “the well-connected go to the front of the line.”
“You’d have to ask them that question,” he replied, suggesting that should not be the case. “Perhaps that’s been the story of life. That does happen on occasion, and I’ve noticed where some people have been tested fairly quickly.”
Inside the NBA, where eight entire teams have been tested, there are differing views. Bob Myers, president of basketball operations for the Golden State Warriors, said his team thought it would be unfair for its players to seek special access.
“We’ve been told that the testing is in short supply,” Myers said in a conference call Tuesday, explaining that no Warriors coach, player or staff member would test until symptomatic — and only then in accord with government guidelines. “We’re not better than anybody, not worse. Just a basketball team.”
The same day, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, in a post on Twitter, chided the Brooklyn Nets, which managed to arrange tests for its entire roster. Four were positive, with one exhibiting symptoms.
“We wish them a speedy recovery,” de Blasio wrote. “But, with all due respect, an entire NBA team should NOT get tested for COVID-19 while there are critically ill patients waiting to be tested. Tests should not be for the wealthy, but for the sick.”
Access has proved uneven across the country, even as guidelines for who qualifies have broadened and the laboratories conducting tests have expanded, from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to state health departments and then to hospitals and private labs.
In areas of the country where the virus has been slow to appear, people have been able to obtain tests easily. But in New York, California, Washington state and Massachusetts, where the virus has spread rapidly and demand for tests is most high, it is very difficult.
The New York City Health Department has directed doctors only to order tests for patients in need of hospitalization. People with mild symptoms are being told to quarantine themselves at home. Even health care workers, at high risk of contracting the virus and transmitting it, have struggled to get tested.
In New Rochelle, New York, a community north of Manhattan where the virus has spread, a sick mother was told she could not get tested because she hadn’t been to a global “hot spot.” In Boston, an employee at Biogen, a tech company where many dozens tested positive after a conference, was turned away because he didn’t have symptoms. On Twitter, the hashtag #CDCWontTestMe has been circulating for weeks.
In the eyes of some doctors, prominent figures appeared to be moving to the front of the line.
“As predicted, #COVID19 is exposing all of the societal inequities,” Dr. Uché Blackstock, an urgent care doctor in Brooklyn, New York, wrote on Twitter. “It’s upsetting for me to 1) have to ration out #COVID19 testing to my patients, then 2) have to wait 5-7 days for the results, when celebrities are getting tested with ease and quick turnaround times.”
Police chiefs across the country are growing concerned that they cannot get their hands on tests.
“What’s frustrating is to continue to hear that there aren’t testing kits available, and my rank-and-file have to continue to answer calls for service while professional athletes and movie stars are getting tested without even showing any symptoms,” said Eddie Garcia, police chief of San Jose, California, on a conference call with law enforcement officials across the country.
The Hollywood elite — stars, agents, studio and network executives — have concierge doctors on speed dial during the best of times and are used to receiving preferential treatment at Los Angeles medical centers like Cedars-Sinai and Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. Many A-listers use LifeSpan, a private practice.
Over the past few days, however, some celebrities — even ones with symptoms — have expressed frustration about an inability to get tested because of a shortage of kits. Heidi Klum, the TV personality and model, posted a video on Instagram on Friday from Los Angeles in which she claimed to have tried two doctors without luck. “I just can’t get one,” she said.
The video may have helped her gain access. A day later, she returned to Instagram to say she was “finally” able to get tested. The result was negative. Representatives for Klum did not respond to queries.
But generally, celebrities of all kinds appear to have had a far easier time getting diagnoses. On Monday, Arielle Charnas, a social media influencer in Manhattan with more than 1.3 million Instagram followers, posted that she’d had a sore throat and a fever for the “past two days.” She was told that she did not meet the criteria for testing and that she should treat her symptoms at home.
But after posting to Instagram, she said she was flooded with fan messages asking her to get screened for COVID-19. She tagged a friend, Dr. Jake Deutsch, founder of Cure Urgent Care, who agreed to test her.
She was swabbed from her car, documenting the procedure online. She tagged both Deutsch’s Instagram account and that of his practice, thanking them. On Wednesday morning, she posted a statement letting her followers know the results were positive. “I realize that there are many individuals, both in New York City, and nationwide, who do not have the ability to receive immediate medical care at the first sign of sickness, and access to care is #1 priority in a time like this,” she wrote.
Deutsch said he was partnering with two private labs, BioReference and Lenco, to offer testing. In the past three days, he said, his clinic screened nearly 100 patients, half of whom came back positive.
On Capitol Hill, where four senators and nearly a dozen House members have chosen to self-quarantine after possible exposure to the virus, patterns seemed to emerge.
Those who consulted their own doctors or the attending physician of Congress were by and large advised against testing if they were asymptomatic.
“Each of the physicians that I consulted with advised me that since I have no symptoms, since I’m not sick, they said testing was medically ineffective,” Sen. Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, said on Saturday in an interview with ABC News.
Some who obtained tests were close allies of the president — Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. and a frequent golfing partner of Trump; Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C. and the incoming White House chief of staff; and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who learned he had been exposed to the virus as he boarded Air Force One last week to fly back to Washington with Trump. Their tests came back negative.
Spokesmen for both Meadows and Graham declined to answer emailed questions about the circumstances of their testing, including who ordered it and where it was done.
Gaetz said on Twitter that White House medical officials had told him he was being tested not “because I am in Congress — but because I had been in close contact with President Trump over several days.”
On Wednesday, it was announced that one congressman had tested positive: Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., who had been on the House floor as recently as Saturday morning. (Another Florida politician, Mayor Francis Suarez of Miami, has also tested positive.)
The NBA has been at the center of the debate since two players on the Utah Jazz tested positive. The number of known positive results leaguewide has now grown to seven, including Kevin Durant of the Nets. But dozens more have been tested.
Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, acknowledged the criticism in an interview Wednesday with ESPN. But he insisted the league sought tests at the direction of public health officials.
“Let me begin with the situation in Oklahoma City last Wednesday night,” Silver said. “The Utah Jazz did not ask to be tested. The Oklahoma public health official there on the spot not only required that they be tested, but they weren’t allowed to leave their locker room, which was for at least four hours after the game, where they had to stay, masks on.”
The league has disclosed few details on how it gained access to the tests.
Wendy Bost, a spokeswoman for Quest Diagnostics, one of the country’s largest commercial laboratories, said a variety of organizations had asked for help testing their employees, noting that Quest provided “an exceedingly small percentage of our overall collection kits to a small number of sports teams.” She said the company agreed to do so only for teams with at least one diagnosed case.
Quest, as well as LabCorp, another major diagnostic company, said tests were processed in the order they were received.
The NBA on March 7 instructed all teams to identify a nearby facility they could enlist to conduct testing, according to a private memorandum obtained by The New York Times. But approaches by teams have varied, and some say they have not screened their players.
A spokeswoman for the Nets said the tests were obtained through a private company, to avoid using public resources. The testing took place after the team “noticed that several of our players and staff had symptoms,” she said.
The team pushed back on criticism that it had received unfair access, saying, “If we had waited for players to exhibit symptoms, they might have continued to pose a risk to their family, friends and the public.’ ”
Other sports leagues have faced questions about testing practices.
According to a statement from Major League Baseball, “players are only being tested under certain circumstances if they exhibit symptoms, and the tests are being administered by the same doctors treating the general public.” ”
The New York Yankees were the first baseball team with a known positive test: a minor league pitcher. An estimated 150 to 200 Yankees minor leaguers and staff members have been in self-quarantine, and the minor league complex, which underwent a deep cleaning, is closed until March 25.