The parking lot of the standalone emergency room held mercifully few cars besides my own. I idled there — young, healthy, boosted and miserably sick with COVID-19. 

The last seven days had passed in a blur of fever and pain. Headache. Nap. Tea. Broth. Headache. Nap. NyQuil. Tea. My throat, hydrant-red, oozed and seared. I could barely swallow, let alone think. 

Foggy, I mulled my options. 

Enter the emergency room, wait for hours, and garner a gut-wrenching bill after hearing what I already knew: That the most promising treatments for non-hospitalized patients — like Sotrovimab, the monoclonal antibody infusion that works against omicron, or Paxlovid, the Pfizer pill — would be difficult if not impossible to find. 

Alternately, I could leave the emergency room and go back to bed, allowing what could be a co-infection, maybe flu or coxsackie or sinusitis, to further cripple my immune system. 

The emergency room had been my last choice. As a health reporter, I’d written and read stories about staffing shortages and burnout. I’d heard anecdotes of long wait times and delayed care. What I didn’t realize until my own sickness was that I’d feel bereft of medical options beyond the ER. 

I managed to escape COVID-19 for almost two years of mask-wearing and declined invitations. Two weeks ago, though, in the middle of a Tuesday night, I woke up and knew: Something was wrong. By the time a PCR test I’d managed to snag returned positive three days later, I was convinced I didn’t have COVID-19. I was too sick. 

By late December, the omicron variant accounted for the majority of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. I’d read and heard that, at least compared to delta, omicron seemed to produce a milder disease. Also, I’d received the Pfizer booster in November and I’m not at risk for severe illness. Before my test results came in, I suspected I had some unfortunate cocktail of flu, strep, a sinus infection or bronchitis. I needed in-person medical care to find out. 

That Friday morning, two days after my symptoms began, I asked my mom for help. She called my primary care physician, but was told there were no available slots for the next five days. 

Meanwhile, I looked online for appointments at nearby urgent cares. I tried to schedule one at a clinic that had served me for past infections like flu and coxsackie. This time, the clinic declined my request. 

I tried again. An urgent care within walking distance of my apartment offered COVID-19 slots, which were booked until Sunday, and non-COVID-19 slots, which were available Friday evening. I hadn’t received my test results, so I booked one.

Less than three hours before my appointment, the urgent care texted me.

After a brief exchange, I called. The woman who answered insisted I seek a COVID-19 slot and canceled the one I’d scheduled. She also told me that, if I walked in, I could get a COVID-19 test – $150 out-of-pocket — but not see a provider. 

After my test results came back that night, I managed to secure an in-person appointment for later that weekend with a different urgent care. The nurse practitioner who attended to me seemed weary. I struggled to self-advocate; I forgot to ask her to test me for flu, or to assess my sinuses, or if she could recommend Paxlovid or another COVID-19 treatment. I remembered one request — that she test me for strep, and she did. Negative. She prescribed lidocaine to numb my throat and an antihistamine for my nose and sent me home. 

As the days passed, my symptoms persisted. My colleagues at the Fort Worth Report kept me sane; they checked in regularly, offering to share streaming service passwords and groceries. Haley Samsel picked up my prescription medication, bless her, and brought me the biggest jug of fruit punch Gatorade I’d ever seen. My editors, too, made me feel valued beyond what I could create. They moved my deadlines back and told me to heal. 

But on day seven, my headache grew worse. Worried, I called my primary care physician again, and asked her assistant if I could see her. I knew I had COVID-19, I told her, but wasn’t improving. I still wondered if I had a co-infection like the flu. Her assistant said she could schedule a telehealth appointment with a nurse practitioner the next day. 

I needed to be seen in person to be tested, I told her. “Then you’ll have to go to the ER,” she said.

Instead, I drove to the urgent care clinic nearest me, the one that had canceled my earlier appointment. The woman at the front desk told me to go. They weren’t seeing COVID-19 patients as walk-ins. Defeated, I drove to the ER. 

When it comes to health care access, my privilege is unsurpassed. Because my parents have both practiced medicine, every call home is telemedicine. My phone brims with the cell numbers of health care providers I’ve gathered while reporting. 

But accessing care in January 2022, when nearly 40% of tests in Tarrant County are positive, and the number of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients rivals that of previous peaks, felt crushing, nearly impossible, even for me. 

I shifted my car into reverse. I couldn’t stomach the cost and wait of the emergency room, not yet, nor did I want to contribute to the throng of COVID-19 patients unless my health became, truly, an emergency. 

These past few months, I’ve been in touch with readers who’ve asked me, at one point or another, what to do if they or a loved one get sick. I’ve updated my resource guide — vetted during my own illness. But if they need non-emergency care, I don’t know what to tell them. Appointments are limited. Resources are limited. I am limited. 

You’ve been exposed to COVID-19, or you’ve tested positive. Now what?

Read the Fort Worth Report’s resource guide for people in Tarrant County.

One week since the parking lot, I’m back at work and moving slowly. But I hold tightly the graces of my sickness: That no one I’d visited before my symptoms appeared became sick. That my editors and colleagues love me well. That emergency rooms, even if costly and time-consuming, exist for us all. 

That health care providers choose, again and again, to show up to work. 

In the latter pages of Albert Camus’ novel The Plague, while an epidemic ravages a city in Algeria, a writer and a doctor step back from the relentless pestilence surrounding them and take a swim. The hour passes, a brief interlude of friendship and “harmless pleasure” before they return to the town and to the plague. As they pass the plague watchman, the doctor reflects on their fleeting reprieve: 

“The disease had given them a respite, and this was good, but now they must set their shoulders to the wheel again.”

May we each find respite and, when the time comes, look ahead with grit to that wheel. 

Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Alexis AllisonHealth Reporter

Alexis Allison covers health for the Fort Worth Report. When she can, she'll slip in an illustration or two. Allison is a former high school English teacher and hopes her journalism is likewise educational....

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