Searching for answers: Williamsburg man who tested positive for COVID-19 describes ‘chaotic’ testing system at Sentara

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Local Thomas Smith was tested for the coronavirus at the Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center in March and found the experience frustrating. (WYDaily/Courtesy Thomas Smith)
Local Thomas Smith was tested for the coronavirus at the Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center in March and found the experience frustrating. (WYDaily/Courtesy Thomas Smith)

Thomas Smith came back from a trip abroad and started to have symptoms of the coronavirus (COVID-19).

Feeling ill is one thing. Getting tested, well, that’s another. And in Smith’s case, it’s been “chaotic.”

Smith, 52, who is also the owner of Binns of Williamsburg, had been traveling to Sri Lanka, France and Tel Aviv before returning back to the New York City on March 11 and eventually to Williamsburg on March 16. After landing in New York and eventually making his way back to Williamsburg, Smith said he found himself overnight starting to have symptoms of coronavirus.

Getting tested

He went to Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center the following day and waited in a long line of cars to be screened for testing. After providing a copy of his passport with his travel history and explaining his symptoms, he was taken to the emergency room to get a full check and x-rays done in addition to the testing swab.

“I came in and they had me wait in the waiting room and I was the only patient,” he said. 

Smith said the experience felt odd because the room was bare and the nurse had to keep yelling down the hallway to other health care professionals for items she needed since she couldn’t leave the room without changing her personal protective equipment.

“It was very unorganized communication,” he said. “When I went to leave I didn’t even understand what I was being told.”

Smith said he gave his health insurance information to the health care professionals and was told his test wouldn’t be sent to the Virginia Department of Health because the facility couldn’t get a hold of anyone in the department. He said he was told different stories from nurses about where the test would be sent and how long it would take.

He was confused, Smith said, as to why his test was being sent to LabCorp and not to VDH because he met all of the travel history criteria. He said he was concerned LabCorp made the inside decision not to deliver his test to VDH and that the hospital dropped the ball on labeling his test as a priority.

In addition, Smith said he didn’t know if there was a profit being made from the tests.

Dale Gauding, spokesman for Sentara Health, said the hospital doesn’t make a profit off any of the testing.

“I would say no, we don’t make a profit,” he said. “This is a process where if you have health insurance, your health insurance will get a bill from the lab for the test.”

Waiting for results

When Smith first had the testing done on March 17, he said he was told it would take three to five days to get the results. However, after five days passed Smith said he still hadn’t heard any word about his results. 

Smith found himself sitting in empty waiting rooms, confused about what resources were being utilized. (WYDaily/Courtesy Thomas Smith)
Smith found himself sitting in empty waiting rooms, confused about what resources were being utilized. (WYDaily/Courtesy Thomas Smith)

Smith started calling the hospital’s coronavirus hotline to try and see what had happened, but he found himself continually reaching a dead end. He said people on the line couldn’t help him figure out how to get his test results and frequently he was just told to be patient. 

“But the thing is, I had been around people that I had traveled with and needed to get information back quickly to them if I had it,” he said. “There was no reason they couldn’t have monitored me more closely…because I fit the criteria for actually having [the coronavirus].”

Gauding said Sentara’s call center isn’t equipped to answer questions about a specific patient’s test.

“They’re equipped with basic information,” Gauding said. “They can’t tell you the status of your test, [they] can’t call LabCorp and see where you are. They can help people navigate the process of screening themselves.”

But Smith said he felt he was left without answers and after more time passed, he contacted LabCorp and found that his test was not made a priority despite his travel history. 

On March 27, 10 days after he was tested, Smith received his positive results. 

But during that time, Smith’s symptoms had gotten worse. Around March 25, he returned to Sentara in Williamsburg where he said he was made to wait outside in the rain because of the new guidelines for who could enter the hospital. After demanding to speak to a patient advocate, Smith was finally allowed to enter the hospital and was placed in a waiting room where he overheard doctors arguing about how chairs should be spaced.

It was during this second visit that Smith found the doctors were frustrated with the lack of communication regarding his test results. Finally, Smith was given a z-pack which he said helped fight off his symptoms.

During Smith’s third visit to the hospital on April 1, he had to undergo another set of x-ray scans, a blood test and an EKG— and he was told someone would be in contact with him to check on his recovery.

But Smith said he never received any sort of call or communication even after his results came back positive.

 “I was called by a representative of the hospital and told a nurse would call me to check up on me every couple of days,” Smith added in an email Tuesday. “They have never called to this day.”

Gauding said typically health care providers tell patients to maintain contact with their primary care physician and they don’t monitor patients even if they are positive for the coronavirus.

“We don’t check in on them if they’re isolating at home but I’m not intimate with that process,” Gauding said. “I don’t think we have the capacity right now to check in on people at home—people have to take some initiative and if they’re feeling sicker, they need to take steps to receive additional care.”

Improving the process

Gauding declined to speak specifically about Smith’s experience — even after Smith signed a patient release form which states Sentara can discuss his case with WYDaily.

After multiple visits to the hospital, Smith is finally recovering from the virus but he still hasn't had all of his questions answered. (WYDaily/Courtesy Thomas Smith)
After multiple visits to the hospital, Smith is finally recovering from the coronavirus but he still hasn’t had all of his questions answered. (WYDaily/Courtesy Thomas Smith)

“Sentara Healthcare is committed to providing an exceptional patient experience,” Gauding wrote in an email. “Last year we had more than 4.8 million patient engagements. We encourage our patients to bring any issues with their care to our attention so we are able to discuss them in a timely manner. Our care teams work hard to resolve concerns and escalate as needed to achieve a positive outcome. We also offer the Sentara Promise Line at 1-800-SENTARA for patients who wish to share thoughts or…concerns at the system level.”

Since the coronavirus first came to the area in early March, Gauding said Sentara’s system for handling the pandemic has continued to improve.

Sentara on Monday opened an in-house testing laboratory that will help return results to patients faster. 

But for patients such as Smith, the experience has left them feeling confused and seeking answers.

“The nurses and all, [they’re] so concerned about the people and I understand they care and are doing their best job, they’re doing the best they can” Smith said. “But I did feel that unfortunately the administration and higher levels are standing behind [that statement] when they do something wrong.”

LabCorp did not immediately respond for comment.

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