As soon as Robyn Sosna stepped off the cruise ship on Saturday, her husband, Wesley, could tell something was off. Her color didn’t look right. She was smiling, but that seemed to be taking some effort. When Wesley went in for a hug, she stopped him.
“Don’t kiss me,” she said. She had spent the last week aboard the Brilliance of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean cruise that tours Florida and the Bahamas. “I don’t feel good.”
The couple went right to the emergency room at Oak Hill Hospital in Brooksville, Fla. Robyn, age 58, had a 103-degree fever, a heavy cough and severe body aches. She told Wesley that it hurt to curl her toes.
The doctor quickly identified Robyn as a “suspected” case of covid-19. If she did have the virus, her age would make her particularly susceptible to serious illness. (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “older adults” are particularly at risk.)
Robyn should get tested as soon as possible, the doctor said. The hospital was still waiting on coronavirus test kits, he told her, but the Hernando County Health Department already had them. They’d be in touch soon about scheduling an appointment, the doctor promised. He sent Robyn home, prescribing Tylenol and an order to self-quarantine.
But the health department didn’t call that day, or the next. When Wesley, a 60-year-old retired police officer, tried calling himself, he said, someone at Florida’s coronavirus hotline quickly told him there was no need for testing: Robyn likely did not have covid-19. When they went to the health department in person, the nurses turned them away. They only tested people with high fevers, they explained — and at that time, Robyn didn’t have one. She’d taken Tylenol earlier that day.
“The [Florida] Department [of Health] follows guidelines for testing of covid-19 as provided by the CDC,” said Public Information Officer Ashley Thomas, who works at the Hernando County Health Department. (Thomas declined to comment on Robyn’s individual case due to privacy concerns.)
In the United States, the process of testing for coronavirus has not gone according to plan. While European countries started screening large numbers of people weeks ago, the United States has lagged far behind, slowed by existing government regulations. The CDC has been reluctant to say exactly how many people have been tested for the virus, now considered a global pandemic, but experts say the number is likely very low. Even people with symptoms of the virus — runny nose, a high fever, coughing — are being turned away from testing centers, including patients who have been referred by a doctor. (President Trump has denied that testing has been a problem. “ Anybody that needs a test can get one,” he said on Friday.)
Cruise ships have become notorious incubators for coronavirus, with thousands of passengers boarding princess-inspired vessels corona-free, only to disembark weeks later with the virus. On Sunday, the State Department warned Americans not to travel by cruise ship, and two major cruise companies — Princess and Viking — have since suspended operations. The ships, which isolate hundreds or thousands of people in one location, use ventilation systems that recirculate air through filters, passing the same air from room to room, making the virus particularly easy to spread.
With all the cruise-related concerns, Wesley assumed health officials would make Robyn’s case a priority.
“I’m thinking to myself: What is going on? Are they trying to downplay this?’” says Wesley. “I think people need to have the real numbers.”
Robyn knew there was some risk in taking a cruise amid an epidemic, but she thought she was prepared. She’d heard the horror stories from the Diamond Princess, stuck off the coast of Japan for two weeks as coronavirus-carrying vacationers were confined to tiny cabins below deck. She and Wesley, both Royal Caribbean regulars, talked through potential scenarios in advance: When approaching the buffet line, she would wear a pair of rubber gloves. Before she left, they practiced peeling them off with minimal skin contamination.
“It didn’t do any good,” Robyn says. She hasn’t heard of any confirmed covid-19 cases from other passengers.
By the time Robyn pulled up outside the Hernando County Department of Health for testing on Tuesday — after Wesley spent an hour on the phone to secure an appointment — she felt certain she had covid-19. Still, she says, she wanted to know for sure. Test results wouldn’t unlock some magical treatment — there is currently no cure for coronavirus — but they would at least allow her to properly warn her friends and family. The new passengers aboard Brilliance of the Seas — already off on another loop around Florida — would probably want to know, too.
When Wesley and Robyn arrived at their scheduled time, they were not allowed in the building. Instead, a nurse came outside to ask a few questions through the rolled-down window of their Toyota Camry. She took Robyn’s temperature, Robyn remembers, then looked down at the thermometer, shaking her head. Multiple staff members came outside to talk to them, apologizing. It was protocol, they said: They could not test anyone without a fever.
Robyn started to cry. She’d gotten up early to be at the health department for her scheduled appointment at 7:45 a.m, after waking up at 5 a.m. from the pain, in a room all by herself.
“Picture the flu, 3,000 times over,” she said. “Like somebody beat you up and then came up and did it again — that's how I felt.”
She thought about sticking around the health department until the Tylenol wore off, she said, but she felt awful. She wanted to go home.
“I told the nurse, ‘You know what honey, I’m tired. I’m done. I am absolutely done. Test me, don’t test me. I don’t care.”
It was all incredibly frustrating, Robyn says, especially since she and her husband have been doing everything they can to follow the ER doctor’s instructions. Robyn has quarantined herself in a separate part of her house. She and her husband only speak to each other from across the pool on their patio, sitting on chairs about 10 feet apart. Whenever they’re out there, they wear masks.
“We’re doing everything the right way,” Robyn said. “But every time we try to get some kind of help, you get the door slammed in your face.”
Robyn doesn’t plan to go back to the health department anytime soon. For now, she and Wesley are assuming that she has coronavirus.
“If there was a vaccination or some kind of treatment she was being denied, believe me, I would be pounding on that door,” says Wesley.
But since there isn’t, he says, it’s hard to see the point. Maybe it doesn’t matter if they know for sure.