Workers screen a patient at Philly's Center City test site

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Philadelphia is set to expand the parameters that qualify people for a coronavirus test, in keeping with new CDC guidelines.

On Saturday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention added six new symptoms to its official list. Though these added criteria might make more patients eligible for testing, the persistent shortage of materials means we shouldn’t expect a lot more Philadelphians to actually be tested, according to city Health Commissioner Tom Farley.

“I don’t think it’s going to make a huge difference,” Farley said Monday afternoon. “What’s going to make the biggest difference, as far as the number of people we test, is just how many of the swabs we have and how many tests our laboratories can run.”

Before this week, the CDC had named only a fever, dry cough and shortness of breath as official COVID-19 symptoms. Now, the federal government’s list also includes:

  • Chills
  • Repeated shaking with chills
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • A newly discovered loss of taste or smell

Almost all the test sites in Philadelphia, including those run by hospital systems and those operated in partnership with the city, have been limiting patients. Most restrict testing to people experiencing official symptoms — with priority given to those over age 50 and health care workers. These people are considered most at risk for getting infected or getting dangerously ill if they do.

Going forward, Farley said, the CDC’s six new symptoms should be enough to score yourself a test at the city-run sites — with the exception of a headache alone.

“I don’t think we’ll want to test everybody who has a headache,” Farley. “But the other symptoms seem like they could be signs of coronavirus, so we’ll probably have an expanded view of symptoms.”

Billy Penn has reached out to several local hospitals running private test sites to confirm whether they’ll expand their criteria. A Temple Hospital spokesperson said they intend to keep up with national and regional standards for testing. The Penn Medicine system expects to release updated testing guidelines this week.

Last month, when research connected loss of taste and smell to the coronavirus, Philly’s health commissioner was reluctant to add it to the list of testing criteria.

“I think that’s very non-specific and can happen with other illnesses,” Farley said during a March city press briefing on the coronavirus response. “We’re really looking at fever and dry cough.”

Philadelphia ramped up testing capacity by opening an additional 12 sites last week. Still, limited supplies meant patients still have to show the standard signs in order to be screened. Right now, Philly’s testing an average of 1 per 1,000 people per day, Farley said.

At most of the test sites, you need to call for an appointment or referral first.

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...