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COVID test in a laundromat? Pop-up sites emerge in Bloomington-Normal

HORIZONTAL ALTERNATE: Grace Swanson compares the results of her home COVID test to the guide provided with the testing kit.
Jennifer Swanson/NPR
“We are seeing a high demand for testing and with that comes a bit of desperation and, unfortunately, those who will take advantage of people’s increased desire for testing,” said McLean County Health Department chief Jessica McKnight.

At best, Janet Tulley’s feelings about the pop-up COVID-19 testing site she visited on Dec. 29 with her two adult children are complicated.

On one hand, their desire to be tested following holiday gatherings was stunted when they arrived at the community site on Interstate Drive and learned there would be an hours-long wait.

But after her son received a message from a friend about an alternative location that didn’t have such a wait time, the family found themselves in line at a laundromat at Oakland Avenue, waiting to get tested by an organization they couldn’t explicitly identify.

“It was so sketchy,” Tulley said. “It was kind of an icky, dirty space. In this particular laundromat, (the testing) was the place where you would go and drop off your laundry if you wanted them to do it — counter space that they had blocked off with a screen.”

She was less than impressed by the hygienic practices of the two workers and felt that the setup she saw didn’t mirror her expectations of what a true laboratory setup should look like.

"In the end, it was fine, but really it could have turned out not-so-great."
Janet Tulley of Normal

On the other hand, she and her children received their results within about three hours — the same amount of time they had expected to sit in line at Interstate Drive that day.

“In the end, it was fine, but really it could have turned out not-so-great,” she said.

Tulley’s experience is similar to those shared by dozens of people who told WGLT about their experiences at independent testing sites that have recently cropped up in Bloomington-Normal: No one reported being defrauded or anything similarly nefarious, but questions have been raised regarding where the sites have come from, how legitimate they are, and who is responsible for regulating them.

The McLean County Health Department is not legally tasked with regulating the sites, according to administrator Jessica McKnight, but the agency is “aware” of their growing presence.

“We obviously keep an eye on that, but we’ve also encouraged the public that, if they believe they have gone to or if they’ve identified a questionable testing site, they should report that to the Attorney General’s office,” she said in an interview.

Making the 'official' list

The department has maintained a list of “known” testing sites in McLean County on its website since the early days of the pandemic, pointing website viewers to locations at big-box pharmacies, retail chains like CVS and Walgreens, as well as the Reditus Labs-operated testing site at Interstate Drive and the community site at Heartland Community College that is operated by SHIELD Illinois through the University of Illinois.

Newly launched locations, including those run by Express Lab Services Inc. on Oakland Avenue and Market Street in Bloomington, as well as testing done within a bone health clinic called Select Care PLLC, are notably missing from the website.

Shannon Laesch is the owner of the Washington Street-based Select Care PLLC and a nurse with active state licenses. She told WGLT that she’d spoken with the health department about the testing she’s offering to patients and members of the public after questions about her work surfaced on Facebook.

“I am constantly trying to correct miscommunication on Facebook (like) people don’t want to use my clinic because I’m not listed on the Illinois Department of Public Health’s website or the McLean County Health Department’s list of testing sites,” she said. “That’s because we’re not a testing site. We’re just a medical office offering extra help for COVID.”

Line of cars on Market Street
Some have been frustrated by long lines at the community-based COVID testing site at the Interstate Center in west Bloomington, seen here Dec. 29.

Laesch said that before she began offering testing in earnest recently, she had some tests on-hand and had experience administering tests for staff at a “small local school.” The impending return of students following holiday breaks and a growing need, she said, prompted her to begin scheduling appointments for testing at her clinic.

“I was like, ‘We have the supplies, we know how to do this,’ and just put it out there that we could help do some of the COVID testing,” she said. “We’re not doing hundreds per day, but if we can help people come here, meet them out in the parking lot in a couple of minutes and not have them wait in line for an hour and a half or two hours somewhere else, we’re happy to do that.”

The number of people dropping by per day has ranged from 12 to 41 — enough to exhaust both her and her staffers: one assistant and her daughter who works a few hours a week while on break from Illinois State University.

Laesch said the dialogue surrounding her clinic led her to reach out to MCHD to talk about whether the agency would consider her office as a potential place included on the website’s list of legitimate testing sites.

She said in part that she didn’t end up on the site because her medical office doesn’t have a certification from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — called “CLIA,” short for Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments of 1988. (The certification means a site meets “federal standards applicable to all U.S. facilities or sites that test human specimens for health assessment or to diagnose, prevent or treat disease.”)

“We don’t interpret anything here — everything is sent off,” she said. “We order the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test and we perform the test, but we send it off for interpreting, so we don’t have that CLIA certificate. That’s the biggest misunderstanding, I think: We’re not doing any rapid-testing here, we’re not doing any resulting in our offices. Everything is sent out.”

Laesch said once specimens are collected, a representative from Winfield-based HealthLabs transports them to the laboratory with results coming “usually the next day.”

“I get up multiple times during the night and check the computer, I'm checking the email, checking the phones, checking if any test results come in,” she said of her process. “If they come in and they're negative, I can sign them off and put them in the patient's chart, and then they're able to see them on the portal. So, as soon as I'm seeing results, I'm trying to do that.”

She said not being on MCHD’s website doesn’t concern her, in a sense, because the demand could end up being too much for the clinic to handle.

“I am scared that we're going to have hundreds of people wanting to test because we just are not set up to do that,” Laesch said. “We’re happy to get 20-30 people in a day, if we can.”

Another new option

While Select Care PLLC might not be CLIA-certified, the parent company of at least two other sites in Bloomington does have that certification, according to CDC records.

Express Lab Services Inc. is running the clinic out of Courtesy Cleaning Center on Oakland Avenue, as well as another out of a storefront on West Market Street.

Lab manager Afham Yousef told WGLT the locations have popped up within the past month, a direct response to growing need for testing around town. Express Lab Services’ headquarters is based in Skokie, and the two locations in Bloomington are similar to that of Select Care PLLC, in that they are collection-sites only, although they do offer rapid testing in addition to PCR.

Yousef said the existence of the two sites is possible via COVID-related funding from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration.

“It’s completely free. We don’t charge anything. We get paid by the federal program, which is why we are able to offer this community service,” he said.

People who visit either site will scan a QR code and take their own sample before turning it over for collection, he said. Express Lab Services then emails results, usually within 72 hours, but, at times, it could take longer.

That a CLIA-certified lab exists behind the local screeners collecting the test samples isn’t obvious to everyone, including Tulley, who said she spent time trying to figure out the company name on Google after her visit.

She ended up satisfied with her and her children’s test results, she said, and she appreciated the fact that the laundromat-based site was in a place better suited for people without transportation. But the lack of transparency and hygiene left her unsettled.

“I did see (the worker) open a brand-new swab, so I did appreciate that — had he not done that, I would have been like, ‘I’m out, I’m done,’” she said. “But knowing what I saw there, I was like there’s no way this is what a laboratory should be like. They just weren’t taking the precautions I would have liked to see, like sanitizing the area when people walk in between testing, for example, or using brand new gloves between every single test they collect. It was just very, very suspect to me.”

Tulley said that while she did provide her insurance information, she was not charged for any of the three tests she and her children took.

One other independent site in Bloomington, called the Center for COVID Control, could not be reached for comment. Including its site on Hershey Drive, there are nearly 300 locations of that company’s testing centers nationwide, and the City of Chicago included the company on a list of testing sites ahead of Lollapalooza last year, although a disclaimer at the top of the list said none of the sites were being explicitly endorsed by the agency.

McKnight said anyone who believes they have identified a questionable testing site, or have been defrauded or charged in some way should contact the office of the Attorney General.

“We are seeing a high demand for testing and with that comes a bit of desperation and, unfortunately, those who will take advantage of people’s increased desire for testing,” MCHD's McKnight said. “We don’t want individuals to get taken advantage of in this situation.”

AG spokesperson Tori Joseph said the agency "had already committed" resources to investigating fraudulent testing sites after receiving a "letter of concern" from Gov. JB Pritzker's office.

On Jan. 14, IDPH issued a news release saying "Illinois law does not assign the Illinois Department of Public Health (Department) or any state agency authority to license or authorize the operations of private specimen collection and testing sites for COVID-19, with a limited exception."

The agency clarified it is able to investigate complaints made against CLIA-certified labs where rapid tests are being administered onsite, according to the release. IDPH also reiterated that pop-up testing sites are able to collect some personal details, including contact and insurance provider information from people testing at those sites, although those being tested should not incur a cost from doing so. IDPH also noted that people administering COVID tests are not required to be licensed healthcare professionals.

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Updated: January 14, 2022 at 3:03 PM CST
In a news release Jan. 14, the Illinois Department of Public Health said state "law does not assign the Illinois Department of Public Health (Department) or any state agency authority to license or authorize the operations of private specimen collection and testing sites for COVID-19, with a limited exception."
Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.
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