In the drive-thru at CVS Pharmacy in Beloit, Janesville bartender Kendra Hoskins took a COVID-19 nasal swab test.
When she finished, she sealed the swab in a test tube and opened a storage box in the drive-thru that collects COVID-19 test samples before they’re shipped to a laboratory.
Hoskins said the drop box was so clogged with other people’s test samples that she had to cram in her test kit to make it fit.
That was on July 8.
Hoskins said she waited and waited for test results that she initially thought she would get in three days. A week passed, then 10 days. Still no word.
While she waited, Hoskins opted to self-isolate and stay home from her job managing the bar at the East Point Sportz Pub—a move that scuttled her paycheck and left the bar scrambling to cover her daytime shift.
On Wednesday—14 days after she’d gotten tested at CVS—Hoskins’ results finally showed up through an app the pharmacy instructed her to set up on her phone. She had tested negative.
Hoskins’ experience comes as local and state health officials are acknowledging that COVID-19 testing has become bogged down at some laboratories, mostly because of a nationwide spike in novel coronavirus cases and an increase in testing.
“It’s good to know, finally,” Hoskins said. “But it was a stressful time. I knew I’d have to wait for test results. But two weeks?”
In an email to The Gazette this week, state Department of Health Services spokeswoman Elizabeth Goodsitt explained the logjam in testing:
“As the increased spread of illness happens across the country, we are seeing significantly slower turnaround times at the national reference laboratories, including those that pharmacies like CVS, Walgreens and Walmart use, and that health care providers use to supplement their own testing capacity.”
The bottleneck, health officials acknowledge, means some people—often those without access to a regular doctor or health care network—are waiting days, if not weeks, to get test results returned.
That has potentially negative ripple effects as public health officials work to track, quantify and respond to the ongoing rise in coronavirus cases.
Johns Hopkins University estimates the virus has infected 15 million people globally. In the U.S., more than 140,000 people have died from COVID-19 illnesses, according to a recent Associated Press report.
A Morgan Stanley biotechnology analyst estimated this week that an average of 65,000 people get infected every day in the U.S. The analyst predicted that if the nation can’t wrestle down the coronavirus now, the transmission rate could ramp up to 150,000 new cases a day by fall.
The apparent buckling in virus testing capability at some labs is just the latest complication for small businesses such as Hoskins’ East Point, and it comes just over a month after businesses began reopening after a two-month shutdown in spring.
At East Point, all bartenders and cooks wear face masks, even if some patrons don’t. Hoskins said she learned in early July that an outside contractor—a supplier she meets with in person routinely—apparently was infected with COVID-19.
Hoskins said she immediately bowed out of work, got tested at CVS, and then spent two weeks hunkering at home waiting for results. She kept her teenage daughter home, too, to limit the possibility of exposing others to a virus that Hoskins wasn’t sure she was infected with.
According to an AP report this week, national health analysts are trying to find ways to limit or delay “low-priority” tests—those for people who show no symptoms or weren’t exposed to another infected person for an extended period of time.
That could ease testing backlogs in some parts of the country. But it might not ease the minds of people stuck in testing purgatory, waiting to learn whether or not they’re infected.
Hoskins, 32, is like many younger people who don’t necessarily have a regular doctor. That means they might not get medical referrals for quicker-turnaround testing that uses more localized labs.
Workers such as Hoskins might not know what to sweat more: their own health or that of co-workers, family or customers who they might have had contact with before they became aware they were potentially exposed.
East Point owner Sharen Hoskins, Kendra’s mother, filled in for Kendra at the bar for the two weeks Kendra took off. Both went about their days with blinders on when it came to the status of Kendra’s health—and what the business should do to protect its workers and others.
“I think we’ve got a problem,” Sharen Hoskins said. “You read that Major League Baseball players are going to get tested practically every day. But regular people have gotta wait two weeks for their results?
“And I think if they’re going try to open up the schools again, and everything else … can you imagine if little Johnny is sick, and the school sends him home and says, ‘You know, you need to get him tested and get the whole family tested.’ And then the whole family and the kid and the school and everybody else has to sit around and wait for two weeks or longer for a test result? That is a problem.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people get tested if they have been directly exposed to a person with a confirmed COVID-19 infection. They also should self-quarantine for 14 days regardless of whether they’ve had any symptoms, such as fever, cough or difficulty breathing.
For people who are tested, the CDC offers a test results window of “less than four days” for states or regions that are considered virus hot spots.
With COVID-19, a highly contagious virus that can quickly and quietly spread, a two-week or even weeklong lag in testing can have serious implications for public health, Goodsitt wrote.
“The value of the test diminishes steadily with time, and those tests over a week old can be quite concerning,” she said. “It means that we aren’t interviewing positive cases as quickly, which means that we in turn are not identifying their contacts quickly. Therefore, those that have had contact with a positive case may not be taking the precautions of quarantining as soon as we would want.”
Goodsitt said the state health department urges people to notify their county health department if it takes longer than five days to get test results.
But Rock County health officials say it’s not easy or straightforward to solve such a conundrum.
Jessica Turner, a spokeswoman for the Rock County Public Health Department, said while local testing sites still average less than a three-day turnaround on COVID-19 tests, the health department is “aware” that some local test providers face longer wait times.
Turner said the health department and the state can work with community testing sites to toggle between different third-party and state-run labs to try to spread out the volume of COVID-19 tests. But she said it isn’t as easy for the county to work closely with some large chain pharmacies and the out-of-state labs they might use.
Turner said it often takes several phone calls from residents who are reporting delays before the county learns of the problem.
And local testing sites can’t always pinpoint the pace at which private labs will process tests.
A private lab that has extra capacity one day might get bogged down the next day with a glut of tests to process, Turner said.
“It’s hard to know where the tests are being sent from,” she said. “We might know Provider X is sending in 20 tests a day to a specific lab, but we wouldn’t necessarily know who else is sending tests in” or what the volume is.
The Walworth County Agricultural Society Board decided Thursday to cancel the county fair and Ribfest, the two largest events at the fairgrounds in Elkhorn.
“The board was concerned these events could pose a risk to Walworth County residents by attracting visitors from areas with much higher COVID-19 infection rates,” Larry Gaffey, Walworth County Fairgrounds general manager, said in a news release.
“Ribfest and the fair are the largest events we hold at the fairgrounds, attracting people from as far away as Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and other counties in Wisconsin,” Gaffey continued. “The board feared the influx of visitors could strain the county’s public health system.”
Ribfest was set for Aug. 13-16 and the fair for Sept. 2-7.
The two events could have brought in tens of thousands of people, supporting the local economy.
The news release cites a UW-Madison study that found the fair annually creates more than 30 local jobs, contributes over $7 million to the local economy and generates significant revenue for area retailers, restaurateurs and hospitality companies.
The fair is also the largest fundraising activity for many local nonprofit organizations and church groups.
This would have been the fair’s 171st year, making it one of the longest-running events in Wisconsin.
The news release indicates the fair typically attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors to Elkhorn, but Gaffey said earlier that coronavirus fears had led to much lower attendance at other fairs this year, and he expected the same here.
The fair, already ailing financially from low attendance during flooding in 2018, had gotten the Elkhorn City Council to approve beer and wine sales for the first time ever in an attempt to increase attendance and income.
Organizers had worked with the Walworth County Department of Health & Human Services to develop health and safety plans to make the two events as safe as possible.
The acreage dedicated to both events had been expanded to make it easier for people to keep to the recommended 6-foot distance. Events were moved outdoors, and the fair’s carnival rides had been spread out to reduce congestion.
“The board became more concerned about the risk of infection as the number of COVID-19 cases increased steadily in surrounding states and other parts of Wisconsin,” the release states.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show Walworth County with the fifth-highest rate of positive coronavirus tests in the state, with 946 per 100,000 population. Surrounding counties also have relatively high numbers.
CDC data show Wisconsin with a lower infection rate than its surrounding states.
Carlo Nevicosi, deputy director of the Walworth County Health Department, speaking Thursday just hours before the announcement, said it was impossible to eliminate all the risks of attending a large public event, but he praised the efforts planned at the fairgrounds.
Some fair activities will proceed. Junior exhibits featuring the work of young people, including livestock, photography, gardening, woodworking and arts and crafts, will take place on the fairgrounds but will not be open to the public, according to the release.
The meat animal sale will also take place.
Announcements about these activities will come soon. Details are still being discussed, according to the release.
“We are concerned about the public health but also feel an obligation to the young people who have spent a year or more raising livestock, doing photography, gardening crops, woodworking and working on arts and crafts,” Gaffey said. “COVID-19 stole part of a school year from these kids. We will not allow it to ruin their dream projects as well.”
Smaller events hosted by independent event organizers remain scheduled for the fairgrounds.
“These independent events attract mainly local visitors,” the release states.
A monster truck show is scheduled for Saturday. Numerous equine events are scheduled for the weeks ahead.
Karen Lisser went undercover as a homeless woman in Janesville for three days and two nights in the late 1990s.
The executive director of ECHO colored her hair, wore no makeup and dressed in donated clothing to better understand what homeless people experience.
When Lisser went to ECHO to apply for food, the receptionist, who did not recognize her, told her she had to wait because people were ahead of her.
Later, Lisser walked to the Salvation Army, where she shared a noon meal with people experiencing hard times.
When night came, Lisser checked out the places where ECHO sent people who needed temporary shelter.
She stayed in two motels over two days.
Lisser called one room disgusting and another building awful.
She quickly scratched them from ECHO’s list of temporary shelter options. She also learned how difficult it is to get around on foot and recognized ECHO needed to do more to help people with transportation.
The experience reflects Lisser’s passion to help those who are struggling.
For more than 25 years, she has led and grown ECHO from a small, grassroots organization started by local churches to an essential social service agency in Janesville. The nonprofit provides food, housing and other basic services.
Now Lisser wants time for herself. She will retire Aug. 31 and eventually will search for a new chapter in her career.
“I’ve done a lot,” she said. “Maybe it is time for someone else to accomplish their goals.”
Nancy Hansen Bennett, president of ECHO’s Board of Directors, said Jessica Locher will take over some of Lisser’s responsibilities while a search for a new director takes place.
Locher is ECHO’s associate director.
“We don’t want the community to feel there will be any fewer services,” Hansen Bennett said.
Locher, who has been with ECHO for almost 16 years, reiterated there will be no gaps in services.
Locher praised her boss.
“When people see Karen, they know she is putting 110% into what she is doing,” Locher said. “When people donate funds to ECHO, they know they are going to those in most need.”
Lisser, who has a master’s degree in social work, started at ECHO in January 1995. She was the only paid staff member at the time. Today, the nonprofit has 16, including part-time workers.
Early in Lisser’s tenure, the agency’s main focus was on food and clothing.
Over time, Lisser grew ECHO’s services, especially the housing program. Today, ECHO reports it serves one in five residents in Janesville.
“Everyone deserves a home and food on their tables,” Lisser said. “It’s hard to find a job if you don’t have a roof over your head or food on the table.”
ECHO’s expanded housing program provides emergency lodging and rental assistance and helps people out of homelessness.
“One of the most difficult problems is helping people get into stable housing because of the (city) housing crunch,” Lisser said.
Current development of apartment buildings for people in all income categories will help a lot, she said.
Lisser was on the founding committee of the House of Mercy Homeless Center for homeless women and children. She is treasurer of a homeless intervention task force. And she has worked on many community committees, including a task force to find solutions for homelessness.
In 2002, Lisser saw the construction of a new facility on South High Street, and food distribution was moved to the lower level.
The building was expanded in 2015 to keep pace with growing needs in the community.
Last year, ECHO served more than 3,800 households of one to eight people each.
This year, the agency expects to help about 4,000 households, Lisser said.
The nonprofit depends on donations to survive.
“Freewill donations are our lifeblood,” Lisser said.
She praised the community’s “incredible support,” especially now when the coronavirus has caused ECHO to cancel fundraisers.
Lisser also praised community agencies for working together to help those in need.
“We all have information about what the other does,” she said. “We make sure the needs of clients get addressed.”
Some of Lisser’s favorite things at ECHO include working with “a skilled and compassionate staff” and seeing clients leave with smiles on their faces.
“I can’t say enough about the staff,” Lisser said. “We developed and implemented a COVID operating plan. We never shut down. We figured out how to do our food and housing programs during the pandemic.”
A framed quote from Maya Angelou sits where Lisser works: “You can only become truly accomplished at something you love.”
The quote reflects Lisser’s passion for helping the most vulnerable members of the community.
“I love working at ECHO,” she said. “It’s been the best 25 and a half years of my working career.”
She learned something in her social work studies years ago.
“You have to focus on what you can do, not what you can’t do,” Lisser said. “Otherwise, you will get depressed. I don’t want to go home and cry at night because I couldn’t help someone. I want to go home and be happy because of what I could do. Most of the time, we are helping people because we have good services. I feel very honored to work at ECHO.”
Anna Marie Lux is a human interest columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email email@example.com.
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