Clinical director explains decision to limit testing
By: DANIEL WINNINGHAM
Enquirer~Democrat managing editor
As the number of confirmed positive cases of coronavirus continues to increase, the Macoupin County Public Health Department opted to temporarily shut down its testing site at the Maple Street Clinic in Gillespie.
Testing is now available in Gillespie again, as well as other places, and county health officials remain optimistic they have an improved plan in better handling test requests.
COVID-19 was the main topic at a Board of Public Health meeting Aug. 19 in Carlinville.
Clinical director Christy Blank provided an update on the county’s efforts in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Right now, we’re well over 200 cases in Macoupin County,” she said at the Aug. 19 meeting. “Our numbers have steadily increased. We were seeing an occasional one to two here, five on occasion.”
The total for cases within Macoupin County is now at 333 as of Monday evening. This included a total of 14,243 total tests, 65 pending tests, 78 individuals recovered and 621 listed in quarantine.
In August, it’s been commonplace to see more like seven to nine or more per day. There was a daily increase of 18 new cases Aug. 20.
“Each day is just a steady increase,” Blank said.
The county closed down its testing site last week. Blank explained the decision to the board Aug. 19.
“We had to pull the plug a little bit…put the brakes on,” Blank said. “Our staff is just worn out.”
The county had been doing 200-plus tests each day, according to Blank.
“Sunday, (Aug. 16), we decided to take the day off,” she said. “(But) we ended up getting a school case which made us work anyway.”
The county’s COVID-19 call center was inundated with messages.
“On a day we’re not supposed to be open, we had 212 calls,” Blank said. “Those phones begin ringing at 8 a.m., they don’t stop ringing. Everybody is on the phone. There are 30 plus messages to check. Our phones are maxed out on voicemail before lunch time.”
Blank said several factors have led the increase in testing in Gillespie.
“It’s a combination of things,” Blank noted. “Doctors’ offices and hospitals have chosen to refer everyone to us for testing. Kids going back to school, colleges requiring it, pre-ops. For our testing site, we don’t need a reason.”
The county has been using electronic ordering, coming back within 24 hours
“They’ve figured it out, you come and get it through us and you get (the result) back really quick,” Blank said. “The problem we’re having, and the reason why we closed is the operation and testing itself. We’ve got a great contact tracing team, the management of that whole area is under control. We’re working the cases as well as the public cooperates.”
On a typical day, an estimated 200 tests may be completed. There may be 15 positive, Blank said. However, for the other 185 negative tests, the individuals still need contacted about the result.
“Before you know it, you’ve spent 10 minutes on one result. We can’t do it, there’s not enough hours in the day, there’s not enough of us. We decided to pause, take another look at it, and restructure the work load, maybe do things a little more on our terms, instead of trying to make everyone in the public happy, and still being annihilated for it.
“We cut back on our work load and we’re going to limit the number of tests we’re going to do.”
Blank said if the county were to limit testing to 100 per day, they could still add 25 or more tests for those deemed sick.
“We’re having a lot of outside the county people come, which is fine, that’s what we’re there for, but what we’re hoping is that we can get the doctor’s offices and hospitals and other counties to take 10 percent of the (test orders) they’re sending us to keep it at a more manageable level.
“If we keep going like we’re going, we’re not going to have any staff left,” Blank said. “All my staff is ready to go. They’re exhausted, and Monday was staff preservation. It was a choice. (We could) stop testing…or have everyone quit.”
The MCPHD staff has been updated testing totals daily on the organization’s Facebook page.
“We’ve been beat up so much this week on social media, that it doesn’t matter what we put out there, they would have made up their own. The staff was more important to me.”
Early on, those involved with the testing process made calls to all of the individuals daily on quarantine. That won’t be the case now.
“We will no longer be driving around the county delivering quarantines, no more symptom checks,” Blank said.
“It’s just defeating to work as hard as we have,” Blank said. “You can’t do a thing (right)….we can’t even put a period online correctly.”
Other testing sites need a doctor’s order, Blank pointed out.
“At some point, we have to preserve our own,” she said. “Monday, (Aug. 17) was out of control. The phones, the people. It was relentless. We’re still testing…we’re just not adding.”
Greene, Bond counties had satellite testing locations, but they closed, according to Blank.
The Gillespie site has been getting individuals from Montgomery county as well as other places.
Testing was unavailable from Aug. 18 to 23. Earlier this week, Monday, Aug. 24, testing began again,
“We appreciate your patience as we re-evaluate our efforts as well as our short-term and long-term goals regarding COVID-19 testing,” according to an Aug. 18 MCPHD press release.
Those who had pre-registered were told to come at their specified testing time and those who were waiting on results were to be notified of the result.
Alternative testing sites referred by the health department include:
• Carlinville Area Hospital, North Broad Street, a COVID order is required from a health care provider (217-854-3141, ext. 224);
• Jackie Joyner Kersee Center, Argonne Drive, East St. Louis (217-545-5100);
• Memorial Respiratory Clinic, Springfield, must have symptoms to get tested (217-588-4019);
• Walgreen’s, Springfield (1155 North Ninth Street) and Cahokia (1201 Camp Jackson Road).
In addition, the state’s Department of Public Health also has more test sites available at coronavirus.illinois.gov. They include:
• SIU: Sangamon County Health Department, 2833 South Grand Avenue East, Springfield;
• SIU Center for Family Medicine, 520 North Fourth Street, Springfield;
• SIHF Healthcare, 230 Old St. Louis Road, Wood River; and,
• OSF PromptCare Godfrey, 6702 Godfrey Road;
Seeking more help
The county’s health department has been working with Blackburn College about getting students to assist.
Blackburn John McCloskey has been in contact with Blank.
There were 13 students who have yet to be assigned a job through the college’s work program, according to Blank. Operating a call center at the health department location in Carlinville is a possibility, according to health officials.
The call center jobs are entry level positions, taking messages, passing them on others.
Blank credited the college with the work it has done ahead of the start of the 2020-21 school year.
“They take it very seriously, they have spent a lot of time putting their plan together,” Blank said.
“Now that we’re not doing symptom checks, it’s good and it’s bad. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from those symptom checks and tracking exposures and putting the pieces together,” Blank said. “We can almost pinpoint when somebody gets a true exposure that day eight to 10 they are going to test positive.”
“Individuals that have been asymptomatic…our longest tested individual was 84 days,” Blank said. “She tested positive for 84 days.”
A vaccine could be available later this fall and in county by January, according to health officials. Individuals in a vulnerable, older age or elderly population are likely to be given higher priority.
Macoupin County Public Health Department director Kent Tarro thinks a vaccine for this area may not arrive until next spring.
“I’m hoping for a vaccine April, May or June,” he said.
“This has become way more than science,” Blank said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“It’s not going away,” Tarro said.
“We’ve been masked around our facility around the clock since March,” Blank said.
“We’ve been very lucky so far that we’ve been able to control our setting.”
Staff have been frequently disinfecting surfaces in an effort to combat the spread of virus.
“Like it or not we are bringing positives there every day,” Blank said. “They are not coming inside but I stay out there and swab four out of five days a week. I have on all my PPE but that doesn’t mean I didn’t make a mistake or it didn’t fail.”
Tarro has recommended Therese Polo to fill an opening on the board of public health, though it is not known will she will officially begin.
The Board of Public Health will hold its next meeting Wednesday, Sept. 16, at 7 p.m.