On March 17, Carolyn Vigil’s husband, James, became the first person in West Virginia to be diagnosed with COVID-19, meaning every U.S. state now has at least one confirmed case. Carolyn, who is 55 and now experiencing symptoms herself, spoke with TIME about the long road to getting James, 53, tested—and the even more circuitous path to getting his results.
Their story began on March 12, when James awoke with what seemed like a bad cold. By the next day, his symptoms had worsened, and seemed consistent with what the couple had read about COVID-19, despite James having no clear link to a confirmed patient or a high-risk travel history. Carolyn now believes he contracted the virus during a weekend trip the couple took to Washington, D.C. the prior weekend. Here’s what happened next, according to Carolyn (what follows has been edited and condensed for clarity):
We went to the ER, and I left James in the car. He was really sick: his fever had been as high as 104°F; he had a cough, terrible headaches, body aches. He has asthma, which can lead to more serious disease. I had no symptoms at that point, but I was trying to keep my distance from people at the hospital, because I thought I could be a carrier. A staff member met me at the door. She was very kind, but she said, ‘I don’t think we’re equipped to do this.’ A nurse came out to the car with a sticky note and the number for a hotline—which I had already tried to call, only to find that the number didn’t work—and told me I had to leave and just call that number, or drive to Morgantown, two and a half hours away. I told her, ‘I’m going to remain calm, but I’m not leaving unless he is at least screened.’ The head nurse came out and saw James, and she could tell he was sick. James and I waited in the car until they took him to a room where they could do the exam without risking others in the hospital. Once he got back there, they were very compassionate. They gave him very good care.
They first tried to rule out all other respiratory illnesses. Those tests came back negative, so they decided to go ahead and do the COVID-19 test. But we had to wait until Tuesday to get the result back. Then Tuesday came and nobody contacted us. We called the ER. The ER told us to call the state health lab. The state health lab told James to call the county health department. The county health department said, ‘We have no record of you ever being tested.’ It was bizarre.
The ER doc called James back and said, ‘Listen, they’ve lost your tests. I’m not sure what to do because we’re not supposed to take any more people into the ER for testing.’ Then a different doctor called back and said, ‘Your tests were found, but they were sitting at the lab and they have not been tested. Now they’re not viable because it’s been five days, so you have to go get tested again—but we don’t know where.’
I called the governor’s office. They tried to help, but they didn’t have much information. A friend who’s very politically connected knew Senator Joe Manchin and offered to help. One of Manchin’s staffers called and said, ‘We’re going to have someone call you back within the hour.’ Dr. Catherine Slemp, West Virginia’s state health officer, called me back, personally on my cell phone, within an hour. She said, ‘Let me cut to the chase: I have your husband’s results in my hand. I don’t know why you were told they were lost, I don’t know why you were told they’re not viable, but they’re in my hand right now.’ Then she said, ‘Are you sitting down?’ I sat down, and she told me James was positive—the first case in West Virginia. If I wasn’t so persistent, and if some angel that knows Senator Manchin did not help, I think we’d be without test results, and I don’t know that we would have ever gotten them.
Now I have symptoms. I was tested on March 18 at a drive-through testing center, and it was much easier this time around. I was in and out in about 10 minutes, and I should have results in a couple days.
We’re hunkered down. We have an adult son with autism who’s not symptomatic at all, but I think he should be tested too. He’s been super, super anxious because he has a lot of questions and I can’t answer them. It needs to be black or white answers, and everything’s gray.
We’ve been told to make a list of everyone we’ve been in contact with over the past three weeks. The health department will call them, but I wanted my close friends to hear the news from me first. Most people have been 100% supportive, but a few people were like, ‘Wow, you did this to me?’ I had no idea I was doing that. It was before everything got crazy.
Hopefully, now that there is a case and we’re giving them feedback and other people are getting more involved, maybe we can get some of this fixed so we can get the health care that West Virginians need. I just want this community to feel protected and safe.
Sen. Joe Manchin’s office encourages West Virginians who need help securing testing or test results to email Common_sense@manchin.senate.gov or call 304-342-5855.
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Contributor: Carolyn Vigil