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Reasons for the Early Misdiagnoses of COVID-19

Why Doctors Missed Early Cases of the Coronavirus

In 2020, the novel coronavirus has affected millions of people around the world. In the United States alone, COVID-19 is responsible for over 100,000 deaths. In addition, the coronavirus pandemic has closed businesses, canceled sporting events and taught the world a new vocabulary with the term social distancing.

Common Symptoms Similar to Other Illnesses

The novel coronavirus is named for its crown-like shape. In images, the virus looks like a ball covered with spikes. It belongs to a family of respiratory viruses that include several forms of the common cold. Because of this, its major symptoms start out in a similar way to cold and seasonal flu symptoms. Patients often experience:
  • A low-grade fever
  • A persistent cough
  • A sore throat
  • Muscle and body aches
  • Runny nose and congestion
On the face of it, these initial symptoms could be one of any number of respiratory illnesses. For some patients, these symptoms stay at manageable levels, and they can recover from the illness without treatment. For other patients, the disease becomes more serious and can lead to increased respiratory issues, hospitalization and even death. In the early weeks of the pandemic, many medical professionals treated these symptoms as they would a common cold. They told patients to stay home, rest and take over-the-counter pain relievers. Not only were effective tests unavailable, but many people in the country thought that the virus had not reached them yet.

Unexpected Entry Into the United States

One reason that patients were misdiagnosed early on was that doctors did not expect the illness to reach their locations. The novel coronavirus was first reported in Wuhan, China. Most of the efforts to contain the disease in the United States were focused on preventing travel back and forth between China and the U.S. However, the virus was already spreading to other parts of the world, such as Spain and Italy. While much of the country was focused on the virus hitting West Coast states like California and Washington, the virus appears to have made it to the East Coast from European countries. There is some speculation that some states, such as New York and Massachusetts, were already dealing with COVID-19 cases in late January of 2020. Many doctors assumed that instances of respiratory illness were due to seasonal flu or walking pneumonia. Due to the lack of testing capabilities at the time, it is impossible to know how many cases were missed.

Early Testing Issues

In Asian countries such as South Korea and China, aggressive testing for COVID-19 was a major part of getting the pandemic under control. It took some time before the United States was able to ramp up its testing and tracking capabilities. In the early weeks of the American response, testing was reserved for people with serious symptoms. In many cases, people with low-level symptoms or none at all were told to stay home even if they had been exposed to someone with COVID-19. Early versions of the test were also problematic. There were issues with their level of accuracy, so some medical professionals felt they could not rely on test results. Testing capacity and the test itself improved greatly after a few weeks.

Lack of Knowledge About the Illness

The first few weeks of the coronavirus pandemic were full of confusion. There were conflicting reports from news sources and doctors. Some infectious disease experts insisted that cloth face masks should be worn at all times. Other public health officials felt they were unnecessary. Some states were shutting down all possible commerce while others kept businesses open for as long as possible. There was disagreement about how the disease could spread. For example, there is still an ongoing debate about the passage of the disease by asymptomatic people. In the early weeks, many medical professionals assumed that if you did not know someone who had been diagnosed with the disease, you probably did not have it. The public received mixed messages about the sort of people the disease was most likely to impact. It was assumed that the coronavirus would only have serious effects on older adults. This meant that younger people took social distancing advice less seriously. They were much more likely to continue their lives as usual. It also meant that medical professionals were less likely to look for the illness in adults under the age of 40 and those without preexisting conditions. Over time, it has become clear that age increases the possibility of health complications, but even seemingly healthy people under 40 have died from the disease.

The Consequences of Misdiagnosis

The misdiagnoses of COVID-19 have serious implications for individuals and the larger community. To prevent infectious diseases, the ability to perform consistent contact tracing is critical. When you know who has the illness and with whom they have been near, you can do a much better job of decreasing the spread. Since many doctors were not looking for the coronavirus in the early weeks, there are probably many more cases than have been reported currently. For individuals, a missed diagnosis of COVID-19 may have caused serious health effects and fatal consequences. People who did not think they had the virus may not have quarantined themselves at home, so the virus might have spread to other people in their household. The long-term effects of COVID-19 are not clear, but it appears that some infected people have sustained serious damage to their lungs that will require years of recovery. If the disease had been caught earlier, they might have had a better outcome. The most serious consequence of undiagnosed coronavirus is death. In the early weeks of the pandemic, there were several cases of death by respiratory failure that were ascribed to pneumonia or other respiratory diseases. It is quite possible that some of these cases were the result of COVID-19. The correct diagnosis might have helped these patients receive the medical attention they needed.

An Experienced Legal Partner

Navigating the coronavirus epidemic has been a challenge for every part of society. The federal and state governments have struggled to determine the best course of action to minimize the effects. In some parts of the country, medical facilities were challenged with inadequate supplies for both treatment and safety. Meanwhile, individual citizens struggled with a depressed economy, job losses and stay-at-home orders. As Allentown personal injury attorneys, the legal team at Metzger & Kleiner is aware that many patients with COVID-19 were misdiagnosed in the early weeks of the pandemic. While some of these cases may have grounds for a medical malpractice suit to be filed, there were several factors that led to these mistakes. The aftermath of the virus will bring a new set of challenges. While a pandemic creates unpreventable tragedies, mistakes that could have been avoided will come to light. If you suspect someone you love has died or was injured through someone else’s negligence, the Allentown personal injury attorneys at Metzger & Kleiner are here to help with wrongful death or malpractice cases. In the Lehigh Valley, contact our Allentown office at (610) 435-7400 or through our website.

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