Last week, the Pritzker administration announced it would delay the closure of Bloomington’s drive-thru coronavirus testing site until Friday, May 22. The idea, officials said, was to use that extra week to come up with a plan to replace some of that lost testing capacity.
That hasn’t happened yet.
McLean County saw its highest number of active COVID-19 cases on Wednesday—77 people isolating at home or in the hospital. As some elected officials turn their attention to reopening the economy, others are questioning why Bloomington’s increasingly busy drive-thru testing site is closing when the community seemingly needs it most.
“I’m pretty frustrated,” said Carla Pohl, president of the McLean County Board of Health that will discuss testing at its Thursday meeting.
Bloomington’s testing site will close Friday afternoon and reopen Saturday in Peoria, which already has four sites that offer tests to anyone—even asymptomatic adults.
“Peoria has four public sites, and after May 22, we’ll have none,” Pohl said.
State officials say they’re closing Bloomington’s testing site because it’s underutilized. It was at first, but it’s not anymore. Ever since the closure was announced, it’s tested 198 people per day, on average. It’s hit the 250-test daily capacity twice since May 12. The federally supported, state-run site has completed 6,300 tests since it opened in late March, according to WGLT tracking of data provided by McLean County's Emergency Management Agency.
"We wish the testing site would stay, but its moving is not a county decision. Let's use it before it's gone!" McLean County EMA posted on Facebook on Wednesday.
It’s unclear what exactly local and state officials have done in the past week to replace the lost capacity. The McLean County Health Department did not return a request for comment from WGLT about its efforts.
State Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, who helped to negotiate the delayed closure, said he’s continued to talk to the Pritzker administration about delaying it again. He noted the uptick in use since the closure was announced.
“Unfortunately, people start using things when they’re told it’s going to go away,” he said.
State officials on Wednesday confirmed the site will close on Friday.
"These testing sites are extremely valuable resources in our state and the state is pleased to have been able to offer this resource to the Bloomington community for more than 50 days. While the site will be closing on May 22, we are working closely with local health officials to ensure residents continue to have access to testing and will have additional details in the coming days."
Limited Options Elsewhere
The drive-thru site, located at the Interstate Center in west Bloomington, is the only place in town where you can just show up and be tested if you meet certain criteria. But those criteria have been relaxed considerably in recent weeks to include asymptomatic workers at grocery stores, restaurants, child care centers, and other “critical infrastructure” employers.
Other options are limited.
Chestnut Health Systems offers walk-up and drive-up testing two days a week at its west-side clinic, but only for existing patients—and only if you have an appointment and symptoms. So far it's tested a small number of patients, with no positive results, said Chestnut spokesperson Lori Laughlin.
Chestnut is in early discussions about expanding testing, possibly involving a mobile unit that could serve people without transportation, Laughlin said. That's several weeks away, she said.
The only other local option that had been listed on the Illinois Department of Public Health’s website—OSF PromptCare at Fort Jesse Road—has now been removed from the website.
“It was not supposed to be there in the first place,” said an OSF HealthCare spokesperson. “OSF PromptCare at Fort Jesse does not test walk-in patients.”
On Monday, Dr. Tom Pliura, of LeRoy, began offering testing—both traditional nasal swabs and antibody testing—at the Sports Enhancement Center, 2406 E. Empire St., Bloomington. He said he’s done only about 40 nasal swabs in the first two days. An appointment is required. Pliura’s clinic does not show up on IDPH’s website.
Many who are hospitalized and all of those undergoing medical procedures are being tested. But that appears to be a small number. OSF said it's testing between 15 and 40 people per day in Bloomington-Normal, a spokesperson said. OSF said “symptomatic persons should call 833-OSF-KNOW for guidance on if they need testing and where they can go for testing.”
Advocate Aurora Health, which operates Advocate BroMenn in Normal, was not able to provide a daily tally of its testing.
"Our supply chain continues to provide testing materials to meet our volume of patients in need of emergent procedures, inpatient care and those with planned outpatient procedures,” said Advocate spokesperson Lynn Hutley. "This number varies considerably from week to week and includes individuals from outside of the community. We do not have any plans for community testing at this time."
Impact On Reopening Plans
The testing site's closure also could complicate plans to reopen the economy.
The McLean County Board agreed Tuesday to send a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and IDPH urging them to keep Bloomington’s testing site open beyond the scheduled May 22 closure. County Board member Elizabeth Johnston said that should factor into any timeline the county should consider for reopening.
“Having some understanding of what our options will be would be really helpful because a strong portion of the (Heart of Illinois reopening plan) is that we have community-based testing so that we can keep tabs," Johnston said.
— Josh Barnett (@votebarnett) May 21, 2020
VisionPoint Eye Center in Bloomington had planned to send symptomatic employees to the testing site and then isolate them until their test came back negative, said Julie Payne, chief strategy officer at VisionPoint.
"We will need to determine a new testing plan for staff," Payne said. "I’m sure many businesses will need some options to get employee testing and results returned quickly as more start reopening."
Pohl, from the McLean County Board of Health, said in an ideal world, there would be a few different community-based, open-to-all testing sites in Bloomington-Normal. She envisions one outside the vacant Macy’s store at Eastland Mall serving east-siders, and another tucked into a neighborhood on the west side—perhaps in a church parking lot.
Encouraging “critical infrastructure” workers to get tested is important, but location is key, she said.
“I know we’re for sure targeting health care providers,” she said. “The (McLean County Health Department) could probably do more outreach to make sure folks who are working in grocery stores (get tested). But if you’re gonna ask those folks to get tested, the testing sites need to be close to where they live.”
And any new site needs to allow walk-ups, which the current Bloomington site does not, Pohl said.
Janessa Williams agreed. She’s a self-employed CPA who chairs the Normal Human Relations Commission. She’s also one of several community leaders advising Normal Mayor Chris Koos on reopening issues.
“The testing site is not ideal because it’s not readily available to those without cars, to those who can’t get out to the Interstate Center, and to ask them to have to go to Peoria to get a test is just absolutely ridiculous to me,” Williams said.
Through Friday, the testing site is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.