Public lab testing of coronavirus faced weeks of delays; number of tests conducted locally unknown

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The Champaign-Urbana Public Health District started preparing for the coronavirus outbreak in January of this year, but no testing for the disease locally began until the first week of March, according to interviews with health officials.

And, as of Saturday, March 28, 15 people have tested positive for the novel coronavirus and only 132 tests had been submitted to state testing labs for Champaign County residents, which has a population of 209,000. It is unclear if all test results have been returned because it can take days for state lab results to be sent back to the healthcare institution that submitted the test.

It is unknown how many private tests are administered or coming back negative because the public health department, like many other Central Illinois county health departments, does not track private tests, and hospitals are not disclosing the information.

But more tests and broader knowledge of testing and results can help give a fuller picture of the disease, said Enbal Shacham, director of the Public Health Studies Doctoral Program at St. Louis University. 

“We do not know how many cases are occurring, only those that have distinct, extreme symptoms; some locations are still only letting people who traveled/or interacted with someone who traveled to  get a test,” Shacham said in an email. “We urgently need to have a more comprehensive vision of the spectrum of the disease, we cannot do that without more tests and more symptom documentation.”

Julie Pryde, administrator of the Champaign- Urbana Public Health District, said the initial testing was only available through state labs with very limited supplies, beginning in early March. 

“Trust me, if we had our way, we would have had everyone testing continually since January,” Pryde said in an interview on Monday, March 23.

As a sentinel area, Champaign public health officials initially authorized 20 tests a week when testing first began.  Being designated a sentinel area meant that public health officials could request tests for residents who fell outside the narrow state guidelines for testing at the time to better gauge the virus in the area. 

The state announced in a February 11 news release that its Chicago lab was the first to test in-state for the virus in the U.S.

On Friday, Carle Foundation Hospital began testing on-site, although a spokeswoman said the hospital is only testing those who meet state criteria. The criteria  limits testing to either people in congregant living such as a group home or long-term care facility with a cluster of cases, defined as two or more cases; or hospitalized patients with unexplained pneumonia. 

Healthcare workers are also prioritized for testing, said Pryde.  The requirements for testing have changed “five or six times” over the past few weeks, she said. 

State guidelines also indicate that if a person does not meet the criteria, a healthcare provider can test via a commercial or hospital laboratory. 

“While it doesn’t increase the number of people who are approved for testing (that’s still approved by state criteria), it does allow for faster results – estimating 24-hour turnaround. It’s also good news for patients outside of Carle’s system because it will alleviate strain on commercial and state laboratories,” said spokeswoman Jamie Mullen in an email. 

Pryde said the department learns of testing from local hospitals, which are now using either one of the three state labs or a commercial lab, but neither Carle Foundation Hospital nor Christie Clinic would disclose how many tests have been performed or are being performed.

“We only get notified of positive results as we then have to do isolation, contact tracing and quarantine,” Pryde said in an email.

All three healthcare systems in the area declined to disclose the number of samples each had submitted for testing at both public and private labs when asked for the numbers by CU-CitizenAccess.org.

They said all information on testing should come from the state health department, which tracks the overall number of tests, or Pryde, who reiterated that she does not have the total testing numbers.

The state health department provides the number of total tests conducted each day at state labs on its website but does not break tests conducted down by counties. As of Saturday, there were 25,429 people tested , with 3,491 positive – or 13.7 percent of the total – and 47 deaths across the state. 

To better understand the number of tests conducted in the area, CU-CitizenAccess surveyed several Central Illinois counties, including Champaign County. At least 10 counties provided information on the number of tests conducted through the state’s public labs in response to a survey by CU-CitizenAccess.

All total, there have been at least 328 tests submitted to the state’s labs across Champaign, Christian, Dewitt, Douglas, Edgar, Ford, Macoupin, Montgomery, Piatt and Vermilion counties, according to the survey. The counties reported a total of 33 cases as positive, with two deaths.

The state’s labs are testing about 600 samples a day, while commercial labs are testing about 1,400 samples a day, a state health department spokesman said in an email Thursday.

To test at a state lab, public health departments give an authorization number to a provider, health officials said. No authorization number is needed for testing at private labs.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides testing supplies to each state, including the specific type of swab used to obtain samples for testing. But supply shortages nationwide have pushed states to restrict who gets tested. 

Healthy people younger than 60 with no underlying health conditions and who have only mild symptoms are not recommended for testing and requested to stay home so that others who are at higher risk receive testing and care, public health and hospital officials said. 

To get a private test, a patient first has to get approval from his or her healthcare provider. And the results could take longer. 

However, all three healthcare systems in Champaign County say they test based on the state’s or CDC’s guidelines. This includes OSF Healthcare,  Christie Clinic and Carle Foundation Hospital.

 “(OSF Healthcare) is not currently conducting any tests of patients that fall outside of the state regulations, even through a private lab,” said spokeswoman Libby Alison in an email.

Christie Clinic reported the same. 

“Christie Clinic has an Authorized Testing Facility outside the Christie Clinic on Windsor location – 1801 West Windsor Road. Patients identified through Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH)’s screening protocol to need testing will be directed to this location. Patients need to call ahead before coming to the testing location,” said spokeswoman Michelle Antonnaci in an email. 

Carle emphasized again that “Current CDC and state health official guidance guidance also states that if think you have COVID-19 and your illness is mild, and you are not older or do not have an underlying health condition of concern, you do not need to see your doctor in person and you do not need to be tested.”

“Carle continues to prioritize testing based on CDC and state health official guidance. Health officials do not recommend testing for mildly ill or asymptomatic people,” said spokesman Aaron Seidlitz in an email.

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