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WGLT's reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, which began in McLean County in March 2020.

Why Is Bloomington’s COVID-19 Site Only Testing Half As Many People As It Can?

Guard members at a car
Airman 1st Class Wynndermere Shaw
Illinois National Guard
Illinois National Guard members take information for COVID-19 testing at a drive-thru testing site in Bloomington on Saturday, March 28, 2020.

Bloomington’s new drive-up COVID-19 site has rapidly expanded the amount of testing happening in McLean County. But it’s still operating well under capacity—with no good explanation as to why.

In the site’s first six days, around 646 people were tested, on average 107 per day, according to official tallies. However, the site’s daily capacity is 250 people.

One explanation is the restrictive criteria for who can be tested there. Currently, only symptomatic seniors (65+), healthcare workers, first responders, and patients with underlying conditions can be tested. (An additional requirement—showing a fever of 100.4 or above—was lifted after a slow first day.) Pediatric (under 16) patients cannot be tested.

However, other people not meeting those criteria may want to be tested. The head of the CDC, Dr. Robert Redfield, told NPR member-station WABE in Atlanta that a significant number of individuals that are infected actually remain asymptomatic.

“That's important, because now you have individuals that may not have any symptoms that can contribute to transmission, and we have learned that in fact they do contribute to transmission,” he said.

If the Bloomington testing site is running below capacity, why haven’t the testing criteria been loosened further?

The criteria are set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), according to the McLean County Health Department and state officials. The community-based testing site in Bloomington is state-run but supported by HHS.

An HHS spokesperson told WGLT on Thursday that those running the site should contact regional FEMA and HHS officials if they want to broaden who can be tested. If they’re not meeting the 250 capacity, they can talk about a “Plan B,” she said. She sent WGLT a list of three tiers of priority testing criteria. Listed in the “Priority 3” group are individuals with symptoms who do not meet any of the other criteria, such as 65+, health care workers, first responders, or underlying conditions. That’s a key group that is apparently not allowed to be tested in Bloomington right now.

“We don’t want to test people that don’t need it,” said the HHS spokesperson, Kate Migliaccio-Grabill.

However, state officials say they have already requested a change.

“The State of Illinois has requested authority to adjust the testing criteria at all community-based testing sites,” a spokesperson for the state told WGLT on Thursday afternoon.

When asked by WGLT for comment Thursday morning, McLean County Health Department administrator Jessica McKnight said, “we have reached out to our partners at IDPH to try to get you the information you are looking for regarding the criteria at the community-based testing sites.”

It’s unclear what comes next. A spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, whose district sits directly adjacent to the Bloomington testing site, said WGLT’s request for comment was the first it had heard of the issue. “We are certainly happy to look into it and reach out to HHS for an answer,” she said.

"This issue hasn’t been raised to our office, but we are reaching out to HHS to inquire about the testing level and requirements," said a spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood, who also represents parts of Bloomington-Normal.

Regardless, the testing site is still making an impact—even beyond McLean County. (There are no residency restrictions on who can be tested there.)

Peoria City/County Health Department Administrator Monica Hendrickson said Thursday that numbers are starting to arrive from the Bloomington site. Among the first numbers arriving Thursday was a positive case stemming from a Tazewell County resident tested in Bloomington.

"With that, we do expect numbers to roll in, both the positives and the negatives, in the days to come,” Hendrickson said.

WCBU’s Tim Shelley contributed to this report.

We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WGLT will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WGLT can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.

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