Times Insider explains who we are and what we do, and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together.
I’ve spent much of this year reporting on the weaknesses in America’s coronavirus testing infrastructure. My story ideas come from all sorts of places: interviews with executives at major medical laboratories, tweets from Americans struggling with long wait times for tests or results, and the startling medical bills some patients have received.
My latest story idea came from an especially unlikely source: my 2-year-old son.
A day care classmate of his had tested positive and, a few days later, my son threw up. Between the known exposure to the coronavirus and a possible symptom, I thought it made sense to find out whether he had also been infected. That information might help our child care provider and local health officials better understand how the disease spreads among young children, something we still know little about.
It seemed like it should be an easy task, given that I live in Washington, D.C., where health providers and the city have opened dozens of testing locations in recent months.
Except, it wasn’t. I quickly stumbled upon another weakness in America’s testing infrastructure that I hadn’t seen news outlets reporting on: Most drive-through testing sites will not test young children.
My first thought was to go to the Walgreens drugstore near my house, until I learned it sees only adults. I began looking into the District of Columbia’s free testing sites. Again, no luck: The city’s walk-up sites are limited to adults, and its drive-through sites see only children 5 and older.
There was an urgent care center a half-hour drive from my house that would test my son, but I was hoping to go to a drive-through site so I could minimize our risk of becoming infected at a doctor’s office (and, likewise, reduce the chances of my son passing it to a health provider if he did have the virus). But everywhere I turned, I kept encountering age restrictions that excluded my child.
Finally, I had a stroke of luck. After venting about the problem to a few other parents, one of them directed me to an urgent care center that offers drive-through testing for children of all ages. The hourslong search made me wonder: Were other parents going through the same thing? And why did these age limits exist in the first place?
I consider myself lucky to have a job where I can spend my day answering those questions.
My colleague Margot Sanger-Katz and I began researching testing sites in other cities, and found that D.C. was not unique: Dallas sets a cutoff at 5 years old. San Francisco won’t test children younger than 13. In Florida, where schools recently reopened, only a quarter of the 60 state-supported testing sites will see children of all ages.
While interviewing the people who run these testing sites, we found that the age policies reflected a range of concerns, including differences in health insurance, medical privacy rules, certain tests not being approved for kids and fears of squirmy or shrieking children. Each testing site’s decision not to test children has created a large hole in America’s ability to monitor the spread of the coronavirus.
I began interviewing parents who had faced challenges similar to my own. They recounted multiple calls to facilities and frustration at how hard it was to have their children tested. One ordered a test online as a last resort, only to find it required three tablespoons of saliva to detect coronavirus — an amount she knew her toddler would not be able to produce.
That reporting resulted in an article that ran earlier this week, detailing a lack of pediatric coronavirus testing across the country and how it could hamper states’ efforts to reopen schools and child care centers.
It would be an understatement to describe 2020 as a challenging year for working parents. Like millions of others, I’ve struggled to balance my personal and professional responsibilities — and conducted more than a few interviews with toddler shrieks in the background. This past month was especially hard, when my son’s day care closed for two weeks because of the other child’s positive case.
Amid all of that, reporting this story was a nice reminder that working parents bring a lot of value to newsrooms. Searching for a pediatric coronavirus test for my own son helped me spot a story I wouldn’t have thought up otherwise.
When my son did eventually get his coronavirus test, that part was relatively easy. He handled the nose swab like a champ and, a few days later, we got good news: His test was negative.
If you have a medical bill related to coronavirus testing or treatment, we encourage you to submit it here. Sarah Kliff is using readers’ medical bills to investigate the charges patients face. Click here to learn more about the project.