Celebrities getting coronavirus tests before the sick is the worst kind of elitism

Nathaniel S. Butler/National Basketball Association/Getty Images

It’s still really hard for the average person to get tested for coronavirus right now — even if they’re symptomatic or have an underlying medical condition. But it’s a seemingly different story for the rich and famous, who’ve been getting tested for COVID-19 in droves, whether or not they’re seriously at risk.

Idris Elba got tested despite not having symptoms, because he’d been in direct contact with someone who has the virus. (He announced his positive diagnosis on Monday.) Similarly, Kris Jenner got her hands on a test, because she’d been around Universal Music Group CEO Lucian Grainge, who has COVID-19. (Hers came back negative.) Other big names who snagged a test but don’t have the virus include Celine Dion, Donald Trump, Heidi Klum and her husband Tom Kaulitz, the King and Queen of Spain, and Senator Lindsey Graham.

On Wednesday, the Brooklyn Nets announced the entire basketball team was tested last week, after a game against the Golden State Warriors. Four players, including All-Star Kevin Durant, tested positive for coronavirus. The team hired a private lab to do the tests, but the decision still drew the ire of critics, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. “We wish them a speedy recovery,” he tweeted. “But, with all due respect, an entire NBA team should NOT get tested for COVID-19 while there are critically ill patients waiting to be tested. Tests should not be for the wealthy, but for the sick.”

The general public has faced mass confusion and misinformation about where and when to get tested, with hospitals and other public health resources around the country facing shortages — especially in the hardest hit metropolises. Medical experts say the surest way to isolate and eliminate the virus is with free, widely-available testing, but with the ongoing shortages, the CDC is recommending tests be saved for high-risk patients, the elderly and the health workers taking care of them.

The apparent chaos and inequity of the testing system here in the US has fueled accusations of elitism and preferential treatment for the wealthy. A reporter asked President Trump whether “the well-connected go to the front of the line” during Wednesday’s press briefing, to which he responded, "Perhaps that's been the story of life. That does happen on occasion. And I've noticed where some people have been tested fairly quickly.”

Frustration over unequal access to tests has been building since late January, when the first case was confirmed in the US. Early missteps with test kits developed by the CDC crippled the American response effort; the FDA relaxed regulations and announced it’s allowing major private diagnostic labs, like Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp, to begin rolling out COVID-19 tests this week. That’s led to a surge in testing done by private doctors and labs who aren’t bound by the CDC’s recommendations for which patients should be prioritized, meaning people willing to shell out a few hundred dollars for a test have a significant leg-up in terms of access.

Quest Diagnostics began distributing its COVID-19 test on March 9, and LabCorp followed suit on March 13. The latter said it expects to be processing more than 10,000 tests per day by the end of this week, increasing to 20,000 a day by the end of the month. Conversely, the CDC and public health labs conducted just 30,000 tests in the eight weeks since the pandemic appeared in the US, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Widely available testing is critical if we’re going to curb coronavirus. With private tests coming down the pipeline, we’re hopefully moving in that direction. But until there are enough for everyone, we need to prioritize getting high-risk patients tested first. For them, COVID-19 is a life-and-death matter. For most Americans, coronavirus will feel like the flu. Even if you think you have coronavirus, the best thing any otherwise healthy person can do right now is stay isolated so this thing doesn’t spread way further without us knowing it. That includes celebrities too, dangit.