CHICAGO — As Omicron cases surged, Chicagoans were told repeatedly by city, state and federal officials to get tested for COVID-19 — but few testing options were available.
The city previously shut down many of the free testing sites it ran, and the few government-run sites and health clinics still open were booked up. At-home tests sold out. Thousands of people turned to pop-ups that promised quick results, especially as they tried to keep family and friends safe during the holidays.
Now, many who tested at pop-ups are questioning if they got accurate results — and wondering where they can go to for trusted testing. Some have said they’re frustrated the government hasn’t done more to provide legitimate testing options, stockpile testing supplies and shut down bad actors.
“They should have seen this coming,” said Scott Smith, of Wicker Park. “There’s few testing sites available. They’re crude, at best. And so it leaves everybody stranded.
“I mean, I don’t know what people are supposed to do.”
The federal government has promised to send 5 million at-home tests to Americans who request them — but those tests won’t arrive until the end of January, at the earliest. Many spots, including Chicago, are expected to already be coming down from their Omicron peaks by then.
The city has shut down many of the testing sites it once ran, while the state has one site in the city.
Those closures happened even as officials locally and nationally said they expected to see more COVID-19 surges this fall and winter.
“Meeting the surging demand for testing is a nationwide challenge, and not unique to Chicago,” a city health department spokesperson said. “Testing alone will not stop the spread of COVID-19.
“The best way to lower your risk of getting and spreading COVID-19 is to get vaccinated, and [the health department] has rightly prioritized ensuring high COVID-19 vaccination coverage to reduce our city’s risk from COVID-19.”
On Jan. 4, as Americans were still scrambling to find tests and COVID-19 case rates were hitting record levels, President Joe Biden urged people to do a Google search of “COVID test near me” to find a spot.
In an interview last week, Vice President Kamala Harris repeated the president’s call.
“If you want to figure out how to get across town to some restaurant you heard is great, you usually do Google to figure out where it is,” Harris said. “So that’s simply about giving people — right? — a mechanism by which they can locate, something that they need, something that can help them.”
Many did just that — and were directed to pop-ups whose legitimacy they now question.
Trevin Cox, of Logan Square, and his partner were exposed to someone with COVID-19 right before Christmas and wanted to get tested — but every place he looked at seemed to be booked. He did an online search to find whatever COVID-19 testing option was closest to him. That led Cox and his partner to a Center for COVID Control pop-up on Dec. 23.
Cox and his partner had been exposed to someone with COVID-19, but the pop-up’s rapid result came back negative. The two kept feeling sick and developed a fever and other symptoms of COVID-19, so they went to another pop-up for a PCR test and another rapid test — both of which also came back negative, Cox said.
But Cox didn’t feel comfortable with the pop-ups, so he got an at-home test. That test came back positive, and he lost his sense of smell and taste. It was “definitely COVID,” he said.
Testing was a “frustrating ordeal,” Cox said.
The government should have been mailing rapid, at-home tests to people in need this “entire time,” Cox said. And he doesn’t understand why officials haven’t stepped in to shut down pop-ups where many people have reported having issues.
“I can’t believe they’re still open,” Cox said.
During the holidays, city officials repeatedly urged everyone — even fully vaccinated people — to get tested if they planned to gather.
They told Chicagoans to go to their primary doctor, health care provider, a local pharmacy or a federally qualified health center to get tested. But that hasn’t been easy for many.
Some tried to go to pharmacy chains, only to be told appointments were booked up or they’d need a car to get tested.
Sam, a Logan Square woman, wanted to get tested in late December after someone in her household exhibited symptoms. But she doesn’t have a car, so she couldn’t travel far or go to a drive-thru testing spot at a pharmacy like Walgreens. That led her to the only site within walking distance: a pop-up, where the space was “filthy,” the workers didn’t wear gloves and her results were delayed.
Smith went to the Illinois Department of Public Health website to look for trusted testing in December, as local officials have suggested. But the site includes few options in his area, he said, and some of the options it listed only offer testing under “pretty restricted” circumstances.
Still, Smith went to one of the sites that was recommended; when he got there, someone had taped up a handwritten sign that said the provider was closed because its staff was doing testing in Lakeview.
“It doesn’t exactly give me a lot of faith,” Smith said.
Not wanting to waste time trying other sites on the state’s list, Smith ended up going to a testing pop-up where he had to pay $100 to get “expedited” rapid test results that still didn’t arrive for hours.
The forced reliance on those pop-ups has created concern for many in recent weeks.
The city “took all those testing facilities away, and there’s really nowhere else to get tested because there’s no at-home kits available,” said Paige Hinson, of Logan Square, who was concerned after going to a pop-up. “Where else are you supposed to go?”
Last week, Block Club highlighted how one locally based chain — the Center for COVID Control, with 300 locations across the United States — is now the subject of federal and state investigations after numerous people filed complaints about not getting results or getting delayed results. Authorities said the chain wasted more than 40,000 PCR tests and didn’t properly process rapid tests in multiple instances, among other concerns.
Block Club asked people who have been tested at a pop-up to share their experience in a survey. In less than a week, more than 350 people have responded, many sharing concerns and complaints about cleanliness, a delay in getting results, not having their insurance information gathered and more.
“If they’re going to have the independent clinics set up, have some kind of oversight. Who’s doing the oversight of all these clinics?” Smith said. “Nobody, as far as I can tell.”
Surges Were Predicted
At the beginning of the pandemic, local governments took the helm on testing. Chicago and Illinois opened testing sites where, on busy days, hundreds of Chicagoans lined up and had their noses swabbed. The city even created mobile testing units that set up shop in different neighborhoods to ensure there was testing available to people most in need.
But many of the city’s testing sites were quietly shut down in 2021 as vaccines became available and cases dropped.
“… With reducing levels of transmission as COVID-19 vaccination coverage increased, the model of community-based testing evolved from large, stand-alone testing sites operated by commercial entities to focus on partnerships with local, Chicago-based healthcare organizations,” a Chicago Department of Public Health spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
As of this winter, the city only had two such partnerships: one in Brighton Park and one in Little Village.
But health officials warned for months they expected to see more COVID-19 surges in the fall and winter.
In August, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s chief medical adviser, said he expected to see the virus continuing its spread this fall and winter if more people didn’t get vaccinated.
In late September, Chicago health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said she was concerned about surges, especially among less-vaccinated communities.
“I think I would be foolish to not be at all worried about fall/winter,” Arwady said during a livestream.
Arwady warned a new variant that was resistant to vaccines, or people not getting their flu and COVID-19 shots, could cause “significant trouble” in Chicago.
At the time, the city was getting hit by the Delta variant, which was more contagious than past variants. Cases rose — and testing began to surge in late September, data shows. Even as cases dropped for a time, testing remained higher than it had been.
Then, after Thanksgiving, the city was hit in full by its latest wave of COVID-19. The Omicron variant, even more transmissible than Delta and with vaccines somewhat less effective against it, was found in Chicago in early December. Chicago’s average daily cases and positivity rate ballooned, followed by a rise in people being hospitalized with and dying from the virus.
Demand for tests increased during that time, especially around Christmas and New Year’s Eve, when people sought to safely gather with friends and family.
There are more than 5,000 providers and labs that are doing COVID-19 testing in Chicago, a health department spokesperson said.
But dozens of Chicagoans told Block Club they tried to get tested — and found clinics and doctor’s offices were full. Stores ran out of at-home tests. There were few city- and state-run options.
Many said they felt like they were forced to turn to pop-ups and regret going or don’t want to go again.
The city is now partnering with “multiple organizations … to provide short-term expansions to COVID-19 testing,” a health department spokesperson said. On Wednesday, free COVID-19 testing began being offered at the Dirksen Federal Building Downtown, with pre-registration required.
But residents said that testing — and more — should have been available far earlier, especially as officials were worried about a surge.
“There were a whole lot of medical professionals that, for months, have been saying, ‘Expect an uptick and a wave of COVID infections come December,'” Smith said. “I guess nobody bothered to listen to them and, so, here we are.”
The state has responded to the surge in testing by increasing the hours its sites are open. The city opened the testing site at the Dirksen building and is working on partnerships.
The federal government is providing 5 million rapid tests to schools; and, starting Wednesday, the government will send 500 million tests to people’s homes at their requests. Those are expected to arrive in late January, at the earliest.
Chicagoans said more should have been done sooner, especially as officials thought cases would rise.
“What they said was gonna happen happened. And we’re totally unprepared for it,” Smith said. “It’s crazy.”
Hinson said the city should have reopened testing site as the weather turned chilly and cases started to go up, and the federal government should have ensured there’d be a surplus of testing supplies and at-home kits.
“I don’t really see how helpful it is for Biden to say he’s going to send them out in January when everyone needed to get tested after Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Hinson said.
Officials are also beginning to crack down on the pop-ups. The Illinois Attorney General’s office and other agencies are investigating the Center for COVID Control, and the Attorney General’s Office has warned people to be cautious around pop-ups in general.
Like many parts of the pandemic, the the proliferation in pop-ups has been “unprecedented,” said Allison Hoffman, a University of Pennsylvania law professor who is an expert on health care law and policy.
State and federal regulators are in “unchartered territory” and trying to “catch up in real time” with businesses like the testing pop-ups, Hoffman said.
There have long been federal and state rules about how labs that conduct testing are run — but many of the COVID-19 pop-ups operating now simply collect a person’s sample and then send it to a lab.
In Illinois, that’s meant the pop-ups are largely unregulated, with officials relying on labs — which are regulated, and thus know what consequences they could face— to only work with pop-ups they think are reputable.
That’s where there’s a gap in regulations, Hoffman said.
Another concern: Many people are starting testing pop-ups without a background in health care. For example, the couple behind the Center for COVID Control chain previously ran an axe-throwing lounge.
Folks who don’t have that background in health care many not fully understand the scope of what is regulated — like people’s private information and biological samples — and what they’re required to do, Hoffman said.
“Ideally, regulations cover everything — but I don’t fault the regulators for not having imagined this world and thought how to regulate it in advance,” Hoffman said.
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