How a Coronavirus Test Shortage Threatens Paid Sick Leave Promises

President Donald Trump and Democrats in Congress are promising Americans won’t miss a paycheck if they’re home with coronavirus. But a lack of testing means many can’t get a diagnosis, leaving them in limbo.

The Senate on Wednesday cleared thesecond major bill responding to the pandemic, providing workers at companies with less than 500 employees up to 12 weeks of paid family and sick leave to deal with coronavirus-related issues. However, with a limited number of kits, health care providers are concentrating their testing efforts on those who’ve been abroad or had contact with an infected person.

Sadie Good is one of them. The 21-year-old says she has been sick and at home since last Wednesday and denied a test, missing out on $13.75-an-hour as general manager at an office-supply store in Logan, Utah. Many Americans like Good may go weeks without a paycheck, indicating the bill falls short of its intent of containing part of the coronavirus’s economic fallout that’s likely to be much larger and last longer than expected.

It also underscores the benefit of government payments to U.S. citizens. One $500B in Checks Based on Income, Family Size” target=”_blank”>proposal by the Treasury Department is for a $500 billion in direct payments to households in two rounds, with the first arriving April 6. This would help target all workers whose workplace closed amid curfews and mandatory closures like in New York and Washington.

Good’s symptoms match those of coronavirus — dizziness, nausea, fever — so she called six clinics in her area to find someone who would test her. After getting through to a receptionist at one, she was asked just two questions: Had she traveled abroad? And did she come into contact with anyone with the virus? She answered “no” to the first question, “maybe” to the second, and was subsequently denied the test.

No Answers

“It’s really frustrating, my doctor won’t give me answers and so I can’t give my work answers,” Good said by telephone. “I want to get tested, but they will not test me.”

She has 16 more hours of unpaid timeoff available before she risks being fired from a job she’s working so she can afford the next semester of classes at Utah State University. “If I could prove that I got sick from coronavirus, I know my work would help and try to compensate me. But when I can’t prove or get a test, they won’t do anything for me.”

The U.S. has tested more than 58,000 people so far, according to theCOVID Tracking Project, but there’s no way to know how many Americans have been turned away. Meanwhile, the incomes of millions are at risk: 12.3 million work in the restaurant industry and 15.7 million in retail. Tens of thousands in food services have been laid off in the past few days, while many department and clothing stores have closed in an effort to contain the spread.

The health of the population and the economy are intertwined, with economists and health-care providers saying that tests should be widely available and free, with support available to let people miss work. The next month will be key, according to Dr. Ranu Dhillon, a professor at Harvard Medical School who advised the president of Guinea during the Ebola epidemic.

“Even if you have mild symptoms, it’s important to test because then you can isolate for a period of time, and you’re not infecting others in the workplace,” Dhillon said by telephone. “For people who don’t have the economic security from savings or a company that allows them to work remotely, all of those people are the primary stressors right now.”

Dhillon himself has struggled to get tested. After feeling a fever and cough a few days ago, he immediately contacted a local hospital. After several days, he was able to get swabbed but he won’t have the results for one to three days. He’s planning to skip shifts at a hospital until the diagnosis comes in.

The U.S. is facing one of its steepest peacetime challenges as the spread of the coronavirus and efforts to contain it disrupt supply chains and the labor market as well as cause halts in demand and volatile financial markets. With an economy almost certainly headed for recession, the Trump administration continues to boost the size of its stimulus plan, which now stands at$1.3 trillion, including the $500 billion in checks to individuals that would start hitting bank accounts in less than three weeks, according to a document seen by Bloomberg.

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