Jennifer Soper just wanted to be responsible and, like more than 1,000 people in Grand Forks in recent weeks, reached out for answers to her questions.

But as health systems nationwide try to keep up with the sharp rise in calls, it's requiring patience to get the medical attention some callers seek.

A Grand Forks-based travel agent, Soper was scheduled for an appointment at Truyu, an Altru Health System Property, on March 23. When she took a call from a screener for the appointment, she wanted to be sure she was on the safe side.

"One of the questions was, ‘have you traveled outside of the country recently?’ There wasn't a definition of what ‘recently’ was,” she said.

But she was concerned about what it would mean to have met with people who were returning from Europe – much of which is now locked down over coronavirus concerns.

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"Obviously, I was in contact with people who could have been potentially exposed to the virus," she said.

What followed was a series of calls to Altru Health System’s screening hotline. After fighting through a busy signal, three repetitive conversations and a long hold later, she hung up, called her primary care doctor and got referred, once again, to the main screening line.

“The loop at that stage was complete,” she said on Thursday. “I was trying to do that all day yesterday.”

Soper’s experience highlights the crushing, nationwide need for coronavirus testing and health systems that are finding themselves stretched by the demands of the pandemic – as well as the difficult situation many like Soper, caught suspecting themselves with the illness, now face. Soper added that she’s worried that too few tests have been administered to really know how much of the virus is out there; she was repeatedly asked if she’d traveled outside the country, or if she’d been exposed to someone who’d tested positive for the virus.

The answer to both questions was no – which Soper felt didn’t prove anything.

"It was just really frustrating. Because I felt like, maybe I should be screened, maybe I should take this test, just because of the weird circumstances personally,” Soper said. “But nobody could answer me."

Annie Bonzer, a spokesperson for Altru, said in an email that Altru’s hotline has received more than 1,000 calls to its screening hotline, with recently boosted staff on the line to help accommodate the influx. Asked how many tests have been completed since March 1, Bonzer said that Altru had completed 171 tests as of March 18, “and are awaiting the results of 100.” The health system is not charging for those tests, she said.

“Altru is prepared, and continues to prepare for this ever-changing, ongoing situation,” she added in an email. “This is an unprecedented challenge and we appreciate the support of our community in practicing social distancing so we can manage this pandemic appropriately.”

But there are strong concerns about a lack of tests everywhere – not just in North Dakota or the Red River Valley – and what it could mean for the country. In North Dakota, there have been 1,169 people tested, as of Saturday morning, with 28 positive cases, according to a count provided by the North Dakota Department of Health. Across the border, Minnesota had 115 positive cases, with nearly 4,000 cases tested at the state public health lab, according to the state.

Nationwide, there are 15,219 cases, according to a Saturday morning count by the Centers for Disease Control, with 201 deaths.

And as those numbers grow, tests are in relatively short supply.

Haley Bruhn, a public health nurse with the Grand Forks Health Department, referred questions on testing back to Altru. But she urged vigilant caution on the pandemic nonetheless.

“Wash your hands, stay home when able, social distancing. … These are still the best practices!” she wrote in a text message. “That hasn’t changed!”

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