MILWAUKEE COUNTY -- 19-year-old Annika Taylor describes it as living in a movie she never wanted to watch.
"I started getting a cough a week and a half ago and I thought it was midterm stress because I always get sick right after midterms," Taylor said in a Skype interview from her home in Milwaukee County.
Just hours after arriving home from college, Taylor says she received an email saying she had been exposed to COVID-19 at work.
"My mind was, 'Oh my gosh, I just exposed how many people traveling,'" Taylor said. "We stopped at gas stations, we stopped at restaurants. Had I known that I had been exposed, I probably would have stayed on campus in my dorm."
"And then my thought was, 'Oh my gosh, I might die because I’m in the high-risk category with my asthma,'" Taylor added.
Days later, despite showing COVID-19 symptoms and jumping through hoops to get tested, Taylor wasn't much closer to having answers.
Other Wisconsin patients describe similar frustrations with difficulties getting tested and long wait times for results; data and patient interviews across the country show the problem is not unique to Wisconsin.
The CDC says people who have a fever, cough, and shortness of breath should call their primary care doctors.
Taylor goes to Iowa State University; she says she no longer has a primary care doctor in the Milwaukee area.
"So my mom called her primary care physician to see hypothetically where we could go," Taylor said. "And they said since I wasn’t a patient, even though I was showing symptoms and everything, they wouldn’t even tell her where she could take me."
Wisconsin's Department of Health Services says people who do not have primary care doctors should call urgent care if they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.
After making several calls, Taylor was able to get tested at a local hospital. At that point, she had been experiencing symptoms for days.
"We waited for two to three hours in the car, waiting for them to call us that I could go to the quarantine tent, which is set up right outside the ambulance bay," Taylor said. "All of the doctors are in the personal protective equipment gear. They took my blood pressure and my temperature. They took a bunch of health information, too."
"Then it’s a swab about this big that gets shoved up your nose for about a minute," Taylor continued. "And they swirl it around and put it back in the test tube."
"It looked scary when they came out because they were all garbed up, they had the masks on and everything," Katie Holm, who lives in Burlington, said.
Like Taylor, Holm had to push to get tested when she experienced COVID-19 symptoms. She says her doctor was not able to order the test. After calling a different line, doing a telemedicine video chat, and fighting to get back a canceled appointment, Holm says she was finally able to get tested.
"I think that we weren’t exactly prepared for this," Holm said. "And that’s why we’re behind."
Delayed test results
Both Taylor and Holm say they were originally told they would receive test results within 48 hours, but later found out it could be seven to ten days until they learn whether they had COVID-19.
"I know my friends, if they had to stay home 7-10 days waiting for a test result, they wouldn’t," Taylor said, describing her fear that the virus will spread more rapidly if people don't receive quick test results.
"If I do have it, this is not fun," Holm said. "It hurts! My chest really really hurts, more so than I’ve ever had with pneumonia. I know that it can be fatal to the elderly and I’m concerned because my parents are over the age of 60."
Taylor and Holm aren't the only ones. There is a national shortage of COVID-19 testing materials affecting every state, including Wisconsin. The Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene and Milwaukee Health Department are limiting testing to health care workers and the sickest, hospitalized patients.
Those standards went into place after Taylor and Holm were tested.
"And it's completely understandable," Holm said. "You've gotta give it to the healthcare professionals at this point. They're so swamped."
That's why the number of positive COVID-19 cases the state reports every day can't show what's happening in real-time. Between delayed test results and the obstacles to getting tested, it's impossible to know how many people actually have the virus.
Annika Taylor says that's making it difficult to convince some of her peers to take the situation seriously.
"I feel like for me, I kind of see it as, 'I could potentially die from this,'" Taylor said. "Whereas others see it as, 'Oh it’s just the spicy flu.' That’s what everyone on campus was calling it."
"I've heard people making jokes about what to call this virus," Katie Holm said. "I don't think it's funny. Look at Italy, they've got so many deaths over there from this. It's not a minor virus."
The Wisconsin Department of Health Services said the state lab has a 24 to 48-hour turnaround for high priority specimens. Right now, they're trying to figure out other testing options for the lower-priority tests. If you feel sick and don't have a primary care provider, you should call urgent care.