By Greg Barnes
Jeff Hensley wasn’t feeling well when his plane touched down in Raleigh on March 7.
He had just returned from Hawaii with all of the symptoms of coronavirus — a cough, fatigue, tightness in the chest, shortness of breath — everything except one.
He didn’t have a fever.
Two days later, he felt so bad that he called the COVID-19 hotline, his wife, Toni Hensley, said in a telephone interview Tuesday from the couple’s Harnett County home.
Toni Hensley, a traveling nurse, said her husband was told that he wouldn’t be tested for the coronavirus because he didn’t have a fever.
She said her husband’s condition continued to worsen, so he called his doctor the next day and was prescribed antibiotics. Again, she said her husband was told, without a fever he couldn’t be tested for the virus.
The next day, Toni Hensley said, another call was placed to the hotline only to get the same response: No fever, no coronavirus test.
On Thursday, March 12 — eight days after Jeff Hensley started feeling sick — the fever finally struck.
When it did, he drove himself to Cape Fear Valley’s Health Pavilion North in neighboring Cumberland County. There, Toni Hensley said, her husband sat for seven hours waiting in isolation to be tested for COVID-19.
He returned home afterward, under orders to remain in isolation. The next day, Toni Hensley said, her husband received a phone call saying he had tested presumptively positive for the coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has since confirmed the positive test, she said.
The Hensleys will remain in isolation at their home until subsequent tests show they are free of the virus and fully recovered. Toni Hensley, 52, said she felt poorly Tuesday, but she thinks it’s just allergies. She said she has tested negative for the virus, but she wants to be tested again to be absolutely sure.
She said her husband, who is 57, felt much better Tuesday, though his temperature had begun to creep back up as the day wore on. He remained too ill to want to be interviewed.
Toni Hensley said she anticipates her husband will fully recover because he is otherwise healthy. But she is left frustrated by the length of time it took for him to be tested.
She said she understands the state government’s reasoning — with a limited number of test kits available, labs cannot test everyone who has the sniffles. But she said her husband is a frequent traveler who should have been tested sooner, fever or not. Jeff Hensley works in the traffic signal field and was involved in a big project in Honolulu.
“Why not go ahead and test him?” his wife asked. “We would have had a whole week where we would have known.”
Friday was the couple’s wedding anniversary. Normally, Toni Hensley said, they would have gone out to dinner and to a movie. If he hadn’t felt quite so bad, she said, they would have done just that, potentially infecting other people.
“We would have been out eating, out doing this and that, and doing the whole thing before he got tested,” she said.
That’s what Toni Hensley said worries her most. Her husband could have infected his or her parents, or other people who are most susceptible to the disease — the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. People who could have died.
“Then we would have had a whole different ball game,” she said. “That was my biggest thing. The news media makes it sound so easy to get tested, and it’s not that easy.”
Use ‘best clinical judgment’
At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said North Carolina will continue to follow federal guidelines for coronavirus testing, including whether a person tests negative for the flu and has a fever.
But as the situation rapidly evolves, Cohen said, health care providers are being urged to use their “best clinical judgment going forward” to determine whether a person needs testing. The number of test kits being made available has also risen since Jeff Hensley got sick.
On Monday night, Cohen worked with the state medical board to send a letter to every doctor in the state on testing for coronavirus, how to keep themselves, their staff and other patients safe as they do it, and where to send patients if doctors lack the capability to do the testing themselves.
Toni Hensley said her husband felt so bad upon his return from Hawaii that he didn’t venture out much, other than a trip to the pharmacy. She said a person who works there has since tested negative for the virus.
She praised state and county health officials for their dedication and concern. She said they call daily to check on her husband, asking about his fever and whether they need anything. Neighbors, she said, have dropped off food and medicine on her doorstep.
She said health officials have retraced her husband’s steps since his return from Hawaii, making sure he didn’t infect anyone. Harnett County now has four cases of coronavirus.
“As far as we know, we have no relation or no connection at all to the other cases in Harnett County,” Toni Hensley said.
The Harnett County Health Department said it is continuing to investigate the four cases, partly to determine if they could be linked. A major concern is that clusters of cases will begin showing up in areas of the state as the virus spreads from person to person. That has not been found in North Carolina, as of yet. Wake County has the most cases with at least 15 confirmed.
Toni Hensley talked about life in isolation and tending to her sick husband.
“It’s really not been that bad, to be honest,” she said. “He’s been sick — fever, chills, sick. He gets winded going from the couch to the bedroom or the bathroom…He’s generally a healthy person. I think that has maybe helped him not be as sick as someone else might be.”
She urged people to heed the warnings of government health officials. Stay home. Cover your cough. Wash your hands. Help keep the virus from spreading.
“Listen to people who are higher up,” Toni Hensley said. “They don’t say this to scare us. They say this to protect our health and well-being.”