test covid 19

30-year-old Canadian can't get tested for COVID-19 despite showing symptoms

Canadian resident and community advocate Vonny Sweetland showed up to his local hospital as a textbook potential case of COVID-19: he was experiencing symptoms like a cough, fever and shortness of breath, and had recently traveled out of the country.

But, upon arriving to the emergency room, Sweetland found he had one major impediment to getting a diagnosis — his age.

The 30-year-old was told by doctors at North York General in Toronto that he likely had the virus and should self-isolate and act as such, but that a shortage of nasal swab kits meant he did not fit the criteria for testing, which in Ontario has now been limited exclusively to frontline healthcare workers and the elderly or otherwise immunocompromised.

The same thing happened when he went to Michael Garron Hospital a few days later after his symptoms became more severe.

"You can actually see in the doctor’s notes: 'He will be treated as though he has coronavirus but we did not test,'" Sweetland, who is still ill, says. "It's not about me, it’s about the government’s inability to create usable statistical data when they don’t test."

Ontario has, for whatever reason, fallen greatly behind the other provinces in testing for the infectious disease despite having the largest population.

As of April 6, per one million residents in Ontario, just over 5,000 have been tested at a rate of less than 4,000 a day. Meanwhile in Alberta, for example, this number is about 15,000 of every million.

Though Ontario has finally worked through a backlog of tests  — with 78,796 individuals now having been tested and only 329 still under investigation — many still worry that the data being released about active cases in the province isn't accurate if so many people who seem quite likely to have COVID-19 aren't being evaluated. 

"It’s not just about not giving us a test and how it’s a little discriminatory (which it is), it’s mainly about how that contributes to the spread of the virus," Sweetland says.

He points out that not testing these patients means we have "essentially no data" on them and are not able to track them: "These are potential exposure routes walking around the city that public health has no record of."

There is also the fact that young people are perhaps the least likely to heed health officials' warnings about the pandemic, and the most likely to be out and about, especially as the weather gets warmer. If they believe there's a chance they just have another form of flu, they may not be as earnest about self-isolating.

"I like to think I’m a responsible citizen, so of course I’m going to follow the directives and self-isolate, but let’s not be naïve — not everybody is going to do that," Sweetland says. "There is going to be a percentage of people who without an official diagnosis are unfortunately just not going to take it seriously."

Millennials and Gen Xers may think themselves healthy and somewhat invincible, but are still very much susceptible to the worst of the novel coronavirus, including pnemonia and death — a woman in her 20s just died from the disease in Alberta over the weekend — and refusing to test younger groups unfortunately insinuates otherwise.

"We have to be careful with about misinformation, and I think it starts with Public Health and hospitals not telling young people 'we’re not going to test you, and you’re going to be okay anyways even if you have it.' I just think that’s a dangerous method."

Sweetland is asking that the province expand its testing parameters and that a certain proportion of tests be designated for people of varying ages, not only for the benefit of the individuals themselves, but so more accurate data about the virus in Ontario can be garnered.

Given his experience at not one but two hospitals, he has been in contact with local political figures and has launched an online petition for more equal testing among the province's demographics, addressed to Ontario Minister of Healh Christine Elliott. 

"We want to start saying, 'young people, you can die from this too,'" he says. "'And if you come into the hospital with these symptoms, despite the fact that we have a lack of tests, your life and your health matters just as much as anyone else’s and we will try our best to make sure that you get tested as well.'”

Lead photo by Vonny Sweetland

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