UPDATED 6:25 a.m. | McLean County officials expressed bipartisan confusion and disappointment Tuesday after learning that the state will close Bloomington’s COVID-19 drive-thru testing site and move it to Peoria.
State officials said Tuesday the site is being relocated because it’s been underutilized and there are other testing services in the Bloomington-Normal area. But those other options are limited, and traffic at the Bloomington site has actually increased in recent weeks after criteria were loosened to include more asymptomatic people, such as grocery store and restaurant workers.
The site hit its 250-test daily capacity for the first time Tuesday. Now it will close Thursday.
“It’s very disappointing,” said Josh Barnett, a Republican McLean County Board member who represents Bloomington’s east side. “But we’ve seen over the past two weeks — especially last week — the usage really ticked up. And I think that says people are getting more comfortable using that facility, and now to have it taken away, it’s a disappointment.”
The site will reopen Friday at the Peoria Civic Center parking lot, again doing up to 250 tests per day with an emphasis on first responders, WCBU reported.
The closure comes as McLean County sees an uptick in confirmed COVID-19 cases. There are now 31 active cases (26 people isolating at home, five hospitalized), after recent outbreaks at a nursing home and among at least seven Illinois State University students. That’s up from just eight active cases as recently as April 30.
“I am disappointed and confused as to why this location is being closed down at a time when we are seeing a marked increase in cases in McLean County,” said Shayna Watchinski, a Democratic McLean County Board member who represents west Bloomington.
The closure comes as local elected officials have shifted their focus to reopening the economy. McLean County officials this week are working with other central Illinois leaders to encourage Gov. JB Pritzker to create a subregion for the area in his plan to reopen the state.
“If there’s no replacement for testing in the community, I don’t see how we can move forward to the next phase,” said Normal Mayor Chris Koos. “It’s crucial that we have testing in the community. The whole basis of getting our community moved forward in a safe manner is gonna require significant testing and contact tracing, which is very, very clear from the medical and public health fields. Without those two elements, it’s very difficult to move forward."
The Bloomington drive-thru site, located at the Interstate Center on the city's west side, has tested more than 4,700 people since opening March 28. It’s tested on average 108 people per day, less than half the site’s 250-test daily capacity.
“With the opening of additional COVID-19 testing services in the Bloomington-Normal area, a decision was made by the Illinois Department of Public Health, in conjunction with the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, to petition the federal government to relocate these services,” state officials told WGLT.
That new location will be Peoria, federal officials told WGLT. But the Peoria area already has excess testing capacity at four community-based sites.
“It’s not good for our community. We need to have a testing center,” said Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner.
The testing site also had a key role in resuming elective medical procedures this week in McLean County, said state Rep. Dan Brady, a Bloomington Republican. The state requires patients to be tested for COVID-19 within 72 hours of their procedure, and some providers — especially standalone surgery centers — had come to rely on drive-thru testing sites, even if that wasn’t their original intent.
“If you remove that, you’re creating a void and another problem for people in health care,” Brady said. “Unintended, I’m sure, but still a problem.”
Marketing & Promotion
With state officials citing low usage as a reason for moving the site, local officials speculated as to why it never reached its full capacity.
You had to be in a personal vehicle to use the site, excluding walk-ups or those taking mass transit, said Renner. Another challenge was the site’s criteria for who could be tested changed repeatedly over the past 45 days. While highly restrictive at first, it’s since been loosened to include many asymptomatic people.
“I don’t think the state has done a good job of coordinating those (promotion) efforts,” Barnett said. “Locally, with the county’s health department and EMA, they’ve been doing a good job of trying to get the word out through the local media and social media. But there’s still a lot of confusion in the community because when it first opened up, those that could use it, it was so limited. I think that has played a large role in the fact that it hasn’t been utilized to its full potential.”
The site is federally supported but state-run. It's open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
McLean County Board Chairman John McIntyre said the county did the best it could to promote the mobile testing site.
“There were many ways for people to have access to the information that the testing was there and the criteria was there,” he said, adding the low turnout could simply be a sign the coronavirus isn't that prevalent here.
“Thank God we haven’t had the need in this area and that’s due to, I think, a good area of people practicing social distancing and doing everything that should be done,” McIntyre said.
County Board member Carlo Robustelli said the ever-changing testing criteria created confusion.
“The first thing people hear is the last thing they remembered, and what people were hearing was it was really restrictive and didn’t feel they were meeting the guidelines especially at the start,” he said.
Robustelli said the county's marketing wasn't perfect, but he called it a “good faith effort." He said grassroots promotion suffered because many people are stuck at home.
“We’re not able to easily socialize information,” he said. “We’re not interacting the way that we normally do and that’s a lot of how communication happens in our society.”
Robustelli added the county and other community partners should work to develop more collaborative marketing efforts in the future. In the meantime, he said the county has to look for more ways to boost its coronavirus testing as a key component to reopening the region’s economy.
McLean County Health Department's communications specialist Dion McNeal said in a statement the department "partnered with the McLean County Emergency Management Agency to promote the community-based testing site and to encourage its use through Facebook, social media, radio and press releases."
What Other Options Exist?
The only other two testing sites listed on the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) website are Chestnut Health Systems' Family Health Center on West Chestnut Street in Bloomington, and OSF PromptCare on Fort Jesse Road in Normal.
Chestnut's testing is only available to existing patients, with symptoms, and only by appointment on Monday and Friday afternoons. That site has tested about six people since starting May 4, said Chestnut spokesperson Lori Laughlin. When asked whether that could expand, Laughlin said she may have more information to share later in the week.
Any testing done at OSF PromptCare on Fort Jesse would require an appointment and a referral, typically after contacting the COVID-19 Digital Response Center at (833) OSF-KNOW, an OSF HealthCare spokesperson said Tuesday. At the OSF St. Joseph Medical Center emergency department, testing is provided for:
- Patients specifically recommended for testing after being evaluated by medical professionals
- Hospitalized patients with unexplained respiratory problems
- People at higher risk of complications for whom a rapid diagnosis would benefit their treatment
The drive-up site did not have such limitations.
Advocate Aurora Health, which operates Advocate BroMenn hospital in Normal, says it has expanded testing to emergency and urgent procedures including laboring mothers. As Advocate resumes elective surgeries, it will pre-schedule testing for those individuals. (OSF is also testing patients before procedures, as required.)
“We do not have capacity for open community testing at this time,” said Advocate spokesperson Lynn Hutley. “Testing continues to be a fluid situation and we will evaluate and adjust our policies and procedures as needed.”
Advocate and OSF's daily testing total was not immediately available.
After Thursday, McLean County residents also can travel to Peoria if they want a test and have transportation. But that sort of travel is a barrier.
“Accessibility is key in public health. Limiting that, I think we’ll see a reduction in tests,” said Jackie Lanier, a public health expert and associate professor in the Department of Health Sciences at ISU.
Testing is key to understanding the “full picture” of COVID-19 in a community, said Lanier.
“It’s disappointing that it’s become highly political in nature,” she said. “Testing is a critical piece, and any limits on that will hurt us."
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