covid test

The state-run COVID-19 testing site at Market Place Mall in Champaign has been jam-packed during the holidays.

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TUSCOLA — Contact tracers in Douglas County are facing a tall order these days, and it’s not hard to see why.

The testing line at the Tuscola Outlet Shops has routinely wrapped around the building and beyond this week as demand for tests has skyrocketed after Christmas, forcing the health department to limit testing hours to 8:30 a.m. to noon.

For the team of six employees that leads both testing and contact-tracing efforts, some extra help from the state’s “Surge Center” is much needed, right?

“If this new central Surge Center looks like it’s put together well and doing a good job, certainly we’ll want to use it to help some of the work we have to do,” said Colleen Lehmann, the county’s public-health liaison.

On Tuesday, the Illinois Department of Public Health announced it would begin to run the majority of contact-tracing operations through its State Contact-Tracing Surge Center.

Changes started Tuesday with a new notification system going online. Every person who tests positive for COVID-19 in Illinois will now receive the following automated text message:

“IDPH COVID: There is important info for you. Call 312-777-1999 or click: https://dph.illinois.gov/covid19/community-guidance/confirmed-or-possible-covid-19.html

Individuals can opt in for an interview by calling the listed number. According to the state health agency, officials will prioritize case investigations for individuals who are 65 and older. This population will get another text if they don’t call the number, the state agency said.

From what local health officials have gathered, the Surge Center will begin to take over a majority of contact-tracing calls sometime in the middle of January.

Local health departments will then focus their own contact-tracing efforts on high-risk areas like schools, day cares and congregate settings, along with specific clusters and outbreaks found in their communities.

The Champaign-Urbana Public Health District plans to keep its same number of contact tracers, Administrator Julie Pryde said Tuesday.

“We’re still going to be doing a lot of what we do here, but it’s necessary; there’s just too many cases,” Pryde said of the new state measures.

Champaign County’s active case count rose to 2,985 on Tuesday morning after another 639 people tested positive, while the number of county residents hospitalized with COVID-19 doubled, from 18 to 36.

The state’s daily average of new cases exceeded 16,000 for the first time Tuesday.

The Vermilion County Health Department has five part-time temporary contact tracers who supplement the communicable-disease department in keeping track of new cases.

After uneven communications from the state, county health department Administrator Doug Toole hopes the eventual hand-off to state contact tracers goes smoothly.

“The state is saying ‘Let’s find a way to centralize and automate this, make it run a bit more efficient and give the local health departments a break,’” Toole said. “It’s a big change, and change is always scary. It’s been herky-jerky and it’s been frustrating, but our hope is we come out on the other side and it’ll be a more efficient system.”

The surge in cases and testing demand is prompting local health departments to adjust their testing strategies.

On Tuesday, C-U health officials advised those without symptoms, a recent high-risk exposure or a doctor’s order to avoid overwhelmed testing sites at Carle, OSF HealthCare and Promise Healthcare.

“This is pretty much what we warned about since the beginning of the pandemic, is that there are finite resources, and when you get to this number of cases everywhere, you start having problems,” Pryde said.

Instead of those facilities, the health district recommends the following locations before the New Year’s holiday:

State-sponsored tests

Community-based testing site at Market Place Mall, 2000 N. Neil St., C (use south entrance):

  • Open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Friday.

SHIELD testing

For these locations, testers should refrain from eating, drinking, tooth brushing, mouth washing, gum chewing and tobacco use for at least one hour before submitting their saliva sample. At the SHIELD C-U locations, download the Safer Community App before arrival.

SHIELD C-U at Parkland College, 2400 W. Bradley Ave., C:

  • Open 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday.

SHIELD C-U at Campus Recreation Center East, 1102 Gregory Drive, C:

  • Open 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. Wednesday and 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday.

SHIELD Illinois (5 years old and up) at Stephens Family YMCA, North Pavilion, 2501 Fields South Drive, C:

  • Open 6 to 8 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday (Go to portal.shieldillinois.com to make an appointment and use agency code “df5brbrj.”)

Other sites

Free COVID Testing Site, southeast corner of Springfield Avenue and Duncan Road, Champaign:

  • Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday.

CampusTown Urgent Care, 631 E. Green St., C:

In Vermilion County, where testing is in a “good place,” Toole said, there are appointments available at the typical Carle Health, CVS and Walgreens locations. In addition, the SHIELD testing site at the county health department’s facility at 200 College St., Danville, will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday.

Ethan Simmons is a reporter at The News-Gazette covering the University of Illinois. His email is esimmons@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@ethancsimmons).

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