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Disparities in countywide COVID-19 testing raises concerns

As the University of Illinois and Parkland College prepare to begin the fall 2020 semester, we sought to find out what kind of testing for COVID-19 exists across Champaign-Urbana with the return of tens of thousands to the community. 

On-site testing is available on the U of I campus at 15 locations for students, faculty, and staff, as long as they can show a current iCard or U of I ID.

On Monday, U of I System News announced the university would expand its saliva testing nationally. According to the announcement, “the saliva based test offered by Shield3 produces rapid results, at costs significantly below current alternatives such as nasal swabs. Results are available within 2-6 hours rather than three to four days or more”. 

In local reporting, U of I System President Killeen “believe[s] that we have a responsibility as a land-grant system to make it more generally available beyond our campus walls, if you like, including the communities in which our campuses are embedded.” Exactly when saliva based testing will be available in Champaign County is unclear, but the testing is now available at U of I’s Urbana-Champaign, Chicago, and Springfield campuses.

What, then, is the state of testing for Champaign County residents with no affiliation to U of I?

The Illinois Department of Public Health website provides a listing of five testing sites within ten miles of C-U at the following locations with varying standards, documentation and protocols requried to obtain COVID-19 testing:

  • Carle Health

    Individuals are required to call the COVID Hotline for approval. Site open to Carle patients and staff and essential workers with public health approval. 217-902-6100

  • Christie Clinic

    Must be approved following phone screening (patients should call their provider) 217-366-1200

  • IDPH Champaign Drive Through

    No appointment required. Capacity is limited. Hours of operation subject to change on a daily basis, based on available equipment and throughput. 1-800-889-3931

  • OSF Urgo South Champaign

    Must meet testing criteria, and patients must be screened through Pandemic Health or PCP in advance. Must call in advance to schedule an appointment. 833-OSF-KNOW

  • Promise Healthcare

    Appointment required. 217-403-5402

Based on these findings and calls to providers, only one of the five locations — the Market Place Mall testing site — has no appointment or pre-testing screening requirements to obtain a test. At that location, testing is available while supplies last. Be sure to call the facility that might serve you best to understand their procedures prior to showing up in person seeking testing.

Consequently, when we visit to the Champaign Urbana Public Health District website, we observe testing disparities locally. As of Wednesday, August 12th, 97,669 individuals have undergone COVID-19 testing in Champaign County. Of those tested:

  • African Americans are 11.8% of those tested resulting in 26% of COVID cases

  • Asians are 5.5% of those tested resulting in 2% of COVID-19 cases

  • Other/Unknown ethnicity are approx 17.8% of those tested resulting in 33% of COVID cases

  • Whites are 64.9% of those tested resulting in 40% of the COVID cases

  • Hispanics are 4.1% of those tested resulting in 27% of COVID cases 

We contacted CUPHD to clarify the meaning of active cases, daily testing data and reporting, racial disparities in testing, testing challenges for CUPHD and increases in countywide testing. Public Health Administrator Julie Pryde responded with the following clarifications:

  • Those considered “active” are persons who have tested positive, are infectious, and in isolation. These individuals have been infectious for the last 10-14 days.

  • Sites outside of the U of I, there are 2,700 tests administered daily across Champaign County.

  • Test results are returned to the tested individual usually within 24 to 48 hours.

  • Carle laboratory processes all tests across Champaign County. At this time, they can process 2,000 tests daily. There is a lag time for 700 additional tests that cannot be processed daily. 

  • Racial disparities across testing can be explained by a number of factors including lack of transportation, mistrust of testing at an unknown location, particularly as the last round of testing looked like a military checkpoint. CUPHD would like to administer more community-based testing, but the testing is administered by an Illinois Department of Public Health contractor

  • CUPHD would also prefer testing to move around the county to reach more people. They would also like to see more site-specific testing to reach neighborhoods that are lagging behind in testing.

  • There will be no additional community testing once the U of I campus opens due to limited lab capacity at Carle. Once Carle increases lab capacity, then it may be more likely that some additional community and neighborhood-based testing is implemented.

As the fall semester unfolds and COVID-19 infections continue to rise, we call upon CUPHD to find and implement saliva based testing technology to serve the broader Champaign County communities. We also ask Champaign Community Coalition to increase outreach to promote testing in the African American and Latinx communities to reduce the impact of COVID-19. 

For the 150,000+ for whom the saliva-based testing is beyond reach, but who will be profoundly impacted by the U of I campus reopening, you must do the research, call ahead, and track the cases in your zip code to stay informed about testing locally. For Champaign County residents, it is even more important to continue to take mask wearing, social distancing, and hand washing directives seriously as thousands return to C-U. Let us be clear: Beyond the U of I campus, seeking countywide COVID-19 testing is up to the rest of us. We are on our own.  

The Editorial Board is Nicole Anderson Cobb, Seth Fein, Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.

Top image by Jessica Hammie.

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