We live in an uncertain world of our own making in the United States, and the consequences include not knowing the most sensible course of action to protect public health while reopening a devastated economy.

I am among the uncounted who contracted and weathered the COVID-19 virus, a conclusion I reached only after paying for a private test after being rejected multiple times for free public tests. The lack of widespread testing accounts for the general uncertainty we now see playing out in San Antonio and the state as Texans as debate continues over the safest path to recovery.

The Trump administration was unprepared for a pandemic. It ignored public health calls to get prepared and purged advocates. It has relied on the states and a hodgepodge of standards to conduct testing. This approach, experts say, has been woefully inadequate in measuring how many people have contracted the virus and how many have died from it.

Now there is disagreement over the value of antibody testing. Will people put their faith in a vaccine once one is developed?

Officially, the United States has lost 60,000 people to the virus in the last 8-10 weeks, more than we lost in the Vietnam War over the decade (1963-73) that U.S. troops fought there in significant numbers. More than 1 million Americans have tested positive. Public health professionals who model the spread of infectious diseases believe both numbers are low.

I am one of the missing numbers, and I share my own health information to make a larger point. My family physician, Dr. Jennifer Wallace, sent me to the Metropolitan Methodist Emergency Center at the Quarry on March 14. I had suddenly become quite sick: an off-and-on fever; a painful, wracking cough and serious lung congestion; sore throat and back; no appetite.

We both contacted officials at Metro Health, but were told my lower fever and other symptoms disqualified me for the free test.

One day later, I learned I had tested positive for human metapneumovirus while at Methodist. That eliminated me as a candidate for a COVID-19 test, the ER physician informed me. My visit to the ER, incidentally, came one day after the first person in San Antonio tested positive for the coronavirus.

ER staff suggested I go home and stay isolated. My wife, Monika, moved into a separate bedroom, while Hilde Maeckle, her 87-year-old mother, stayed in her cottage on our property, never coming close to me. Our two adult sons, who live on the near-East Side, also kept their distance. I was a healthy, active 67-year-old, but I grew sicker while listlessly confined to bed. Wallace prescribed antibiotics in the event I had contracted bacterial pneumonia, and then sent me to South Texas Radiology Imaging Centers’ Metropolitan Imaging Center near downtown for a lung X-ray.

A masked employee met me outside the center on Brooklyn Avenue. He handed me paperwork and then went inside to confer with staff. After a long wait, he returned to tell me I was denied service due to symptoms that suggested I had the COVID-19 virus. He invited me to visit another imaging center location in Schertz, but I was too sick to make the drive and went home.

By the end of week two, I had started to recover. Was it the antibiotics or the virus running its course?

All along, I believed I had contracted COVID-19 and should have had access to a test, even if my symptoms didn’t fit perfectly into the official guidelines. Those guidelines, in my view, masked the need for public health officials to hoard the use of their limited supply.

The Rivard Report‘s Health Reporter Roseanna Garza published an article headlined Physician’s Mobile Coronavirus Testing Site Offers Peace of Mind for a Price, on April 23. Dr. Luke Berry, a local emergency room physician, started the drive-thru testing site to meet pent-up demand. I did what many in our city cannot afford to do: I went online, paid $149, and made an appointment for the next morning.

The pop-up site was carefully staffed by Dr. Berry and health care professionals wearing masks, protective garments, and gloves. Even pens used to sign the paperwork were given to patients rather than reused. I’m a journalist; I came with my own pen.

Through the window of my truck, Berry’s staff administered two tests: a pin-prick blood test for antibodies, and a nasal swab for the COVID-19 virus. I waited in my truck for the antibodies test results. Minutes later I was handed a printed test result and confirmation.

“Your IgM antibodies are positive, indicating you have recently been exposed to the virus.” Days later, the COVID-19 test came back as negative. Berry emailed me:

“Your IgM antibody was positive. This means that you have been exposed to COVID-19 in the past and have developed an immune response … this likely indicates that you had COVID-19 and now have recovered. It is unclear how long it takes exactly for your antibodies to then ‘convert’ to IgG. 

“Regardless, you have recovered and your body is showing that it developed an immune response to COVID-19. This is great news and confirms the thought that many people have likely had COVID-19 and now recovered.”

I had come into the Rivard Report office on March 12 and 13, before staff began working remotely. No other staff members had fallen seriously ill, but at least three colleagues experienced mild flulike symptoms around the same time. Last week we invited all staff members to be tested.

Uncertainty is driving a lot of disagreement in San Antonio and beyond about the most sensible next steps to contain the COVID-19 spread and reopen the economy. The patchwork of different approaches in different states with little federal oversight strikes me as a terrible approach, one driven by politics rather than science.

I’ve concluded that most U.S. cities, except those in the hardest-hit regions, should follow the example of Sweden and allow the most vulnerable groups – people over 65, people with pre-existing conditions – to isolate while the least vulnerable resume normal lives and work with reasonable social distancing. Many will contract the virus, recover, and help create herd immunity. A contrary opinion that I came across in my Sunday morning reading argued that adapting such an approach could be disastrous.

Only then, or with the advent of widely administrated vaccine, will we move beyond this pandemic with certainty. With foresight, our elected leaders will learn hard lessons from the COVID-19 experience and be better prepared the next time.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.