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COVID-19 Testing Still Limited In Springfield — 'We're really having to make some tough decisions'

Brian Mackey
NPR Illinois
Public health experts say hand-washing can reduce spread of the novel coronavirus.

Testing for the novel coronavirus is still restricted in Sangamon County on Sunday, despite the first two confirmed cases being announced Saturday evening.

The two private hospitals in Springfield — Memorial Medical Center and HSHS St. John’s — have contracted with private companies to get test kits for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

But they have not begun using the tests, as the Illinois Department of Public Health still determines who should be tested, according to a St. John’s spokesperson.

Local public health officials and hospital leaders on Saturday said testing will be prioritized for people who have been in contact with those who have confirmed cases or those who have traveled to areas the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deem high risk, including China and Italy.

“The same criteria that the Illinois Department of Public Health is applying, so are most of these labs,” said Dr. Raj Govindaiah, chief medical officer at Memorial Health Systems. “It increases the number of labs doing the test; it does not make it easier for you to get a test.”

Dr. Vidya Sundareshan, an infectious disease specialist with the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine and a member of the Sangamon County Health Board, put a finer point on it: “The tests are being limited to people who need them, rather than people who want them at this point.”

Eight people in Sangamon County have been tested: two have been positive for COVID-19, two are pending, and four came back negative.

Frustrated Physicians, Nationwide Problem

There’s been criticism nationwide over how few tests are available. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has been vocal about his frustration with the federal government.

According to the Illinois Department of Public Health , the department has tested 708 people as of Saturday afternoon, and 64 of those have been positive (Springfield’s two confirmed cases were not included in IDPH’s daily update on Saturday).

The CDC says nationwide, about 15,000 people have been tested.

In Champaign County, nearly 30 people have been tested since January, according to reporting from Illinois Public Media . Meanwhile in McLean County, home to Bloomington, fewer than five had been tested as of last week, according to WGLT .

Sundareshan and Miller, with the health board, said anyone who has needed a test under current criteria has gotten one.

However, Sundareshan said for epidemiological purposes, they’d prefer to have more testing available. Experts have suggested the low testing rates in America mean there are many unknown cases of COVID-19.

Govindaiah, with Memorial, said he understands that there are people who are worried and want to be tested, but health care providers just can’t test those people right now.

'We're really having to make some tough decisions about who to test. I hate that. I want that to change as soon as possible.'

“The bigger problem is there are people that physicians want to test that we don't have enough testing kits and ability to run those tests,” he said. “So we're really having to make some tough decisions about who to test. I hate that. I want that to change as soon as possible.”

Govindaiah said he and the other health care leaders are working to change that.

The Illinois Department of Public Health has also said it’s working with hospitals to increase testing capacity, and is continuing to pressure the federal government for more test kits.

“We do need to emphasize there are a limited number of tests available. So we do ask that people who do not have symptoms or have mild symptoms, stay home,” IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said Friday. “We’re trying to prioritize those tests for individuals who are at the highest risk for severe illness.”

Pritzker and Ezike have been urging residents, particularly healthy ones, to stay home and not to travel. The state has canceled school and limited public gatherings.

Limited Lab Capacity

Dr. Gurpreet Mander, St. John’s chief medical officer, said testing is limited by the capacity of labs to analyze the test. He emphasized this is an evolving situation that changes day by day, and expanding testing is very important.

“The intent ultimately is if you have a good idea about the prevalence of the disease, then we can flatten out the curve in the way it spreads,” Mander told NPR Illinois Friday, referencing a widely shared image of reducing a spike in cases to ensure the health system can handle an influx of patients. “That will also help us be able to deploy resources or spread out resources to help take care of patients.”

Third-party testing is now available in other parts of the country. Mercy hospital system in the St. Louis region opened a drive-through testing facility in Chesterfield, Missouri. The first case in the St. Louis area was announced last weekend.

Memorial has plans to set up a drive-through facility, but needs a place to analyze the samples once they’ve been collected, Govindaiah said. He added they might be a week or two away from setting that up.

If you believe you have symptoms, contact your health care provider or call the Sangamon County Health Department. Health officials are discouraging residents from going to an emergency room unless their symptoms are severe. Even then, people are encouraged to call ahead to minimize spreading coronavirus to other patients.

Illinois Public Media’s Christine Herman, WGLT-FM and St. Louis Public Radio contributed to this reporting.

Mary Hansen is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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