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St. Louis doctor describes rationing COVID-19 tests, delivering masks to doctors

St. Louis doctor describes rationing COVID-19 tests, delivering masks to doctors

ST. LOUIS — Dr. Mimi Vo spoke sternly to the woman who said her boss wanted her to come into work despite having upper respiratory symptoms.

“You tell your boss you are not allowed to go to work,” she said to her patient. “You could be killing another person.”

But Vo decided against using one of her four remaining COVID-19 tests on this patient, who was young and otherwise healthy. She is saving them for patients who have other risk factors that make them more vulnerable to complications from exposure to the new coronavirus.

This patient works as a tech in a nail salon.

Vo was finally able to get herself tested after the Post-Dispatch reported Thursday about her nearly two-week struggle to find a test despite exhibiting many of the symptoms. On Saturday, she heard from a Mercy doctor, whom she had studied with in medical school, that her test was negative.

“I was so, so relieved,” she said. Vo had imposed a self-quarantine for the past week, as did her sister, her parents and her best friend — all of whom she had seen prior to beginning her quarantine. She switched her medical practice to telemedicine.

“I’m still seeing patients who are continuing to work despite respiratory symptoms,” she said. “People are afraid to lose their jobs.”

She has offered to write them notes providing a medical explanation for staying at home.

But she’s saving the tests she received from LabCorp for the patients who are most likely to end up in the ICU. She’s already used one on a health care worker at a hospital.

“It’s an ethical issue,” she said. In addition to the continued lack of availability of needed tests, she’s still dealing with a lack of protective equipment. On Sunday, a doctor from Belleville picked up three boxes of masks from Vo’s building because Vo had received some donations and the Belleville doctor had none remaining.

Dr. Mary Noel George, a dermatologist in private practice in Ladue, said she is hearing the same reports from health care workers on the front lines at area hospitals.

“Doctors are making ethical decisions and rationing care at this point,” George said.

A spokeswoman with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services said they expect to receive more tests from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention very soon. “And as our capacity increases, our criteria (for testing) will continue to widen,” she said.

George cited an increasing number of health care workers in St. Louis who have been infected with COVID-19 and put on ventilators. The first death in the St. Louis region was a nurse from SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital.

“When our front lines are going down because we don’t have adequate testing or protection, that’s when we are in crisis,” George said.

George is asking people to contact their elected officials and ask them to urge the White House to use the Defense Protection Act to compel businesses to produce desperately needed medical supplies.

“There are a few things that only government can do in a crisis, and this is one. We need every company in America who can help us to make masks, gowns, goggles, gloves, ventilators. ... Two weeks ago, the problem was testing supplies. Now there’s a problem with masks. Next week it will be ventilators,” George said.

In the meantime, Vo’s sister, Dr. Mai Vo, a nephrologist at St. Louis University, has sewn 30 masks during her self-quarantine.

Mimi Vo is trying to compile lists of donated and homemade masks and private doctors who need them. She is trying to coordinate getting the supplies to where they are most needed.

Vo’s father, Dr. Thanh Vo, had practiced for more than 50 years. Mimi Vo made him stop seeing patients earlier this month because his age and pre-existing health conditions make him among the most vulnerable to the virus. She joined her father’s medical practice, Vo Medical Clinic in St. Louis, about a decade ago.

Mai Vo’s 8-year-old daughter told her mom that “one day I will tell my kids about the time their grandma made masks to save people’s lives.”

COVID-19 cases in Missouri by county

COVID-19 cases in the United States

CDC fact sheet: Prevention and treatment

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