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Federal Funding For COVID Testing, Vaccinations Has Dried Up — And Local Health Providers Are Worried

Experts are worried the funding confusion — and potential costs — could keep people from getting tested, vaccinated or boosted.

Angel Salgado, 5, receives his second COVID-19 vaccine from David Palma at Esperanza Health Centers Brighton Park on April 4, 2022.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — Local health providers are scrambling to ensure COVID-19 tests and vaccines remain affordable and accessible to Chicagoans after federal funding for the life-saving services has dried up.

Congress is looking at a $10 billion package that would fund tests and vaccines so they continue to be free for all, but it’s not clear yet if the package has the votes to pass.

The situation has created a domino effect of problems: Local officials are trying to ensure people can get tested and vaccinated even if they don’t have insurance, health providers wonder if they need to cut back on those services for uninsured people and residents don’t know if they’ll have to start paying for every test.

Experts are worried the confusion — and potential costs — could keep people from getting tested, vaccinated or boosted, which could put people at risk or worsen the city’s COVID-19 outbreak.

Carmen Vergara, COO of Esperanza Health Centers, said it’s scary not being able to rely on reimbursement from the federal government for testing and vaccinating uninsured people. But she said the health care provider has no plans to start charging anyone for COVID-19 tests or vaccinations.

“We want to just make sure that [people] continue to feel that trust and comfort in coming to Esperanza and not worry about getting a COVID related bill,” Vergara said.

Vergara said about 30 percent of Esperanza’s patients who regularly receive care are uninsured, and about half who receive COVID-related care are uninsured. Company leaders hopes the federal funding returns soon, as it’s worrisome to think about having to cut areas of care to make up for the lack of financial help, Vergara said.

“It’s not where we are right now, but who knows what happens in the future?” she said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Free at-home COVID-19 rapid tests are distributed at Esperanza Health Centers Brighton Park on April 4, 2022.

Demand for testing and vaccine shots has decreased in the city and statewide in the past few months after testing hit record-high levels during the Omicron surge in late December and early January. Demand has also dropped off at Esperanza, but employees still administer about 100 vaccines a day, Vergara said.

But officials are trying to keep an eye on the future: A decline in federal funding could hurt Esperanza’s ability to test and vaccinate people if there’s another surge in cases or if more people become eligible for additional booster shots, Vergara said.

“It’ll affect the number of days that we could be open for testing. It could affect the length of time that a patient might have to wait to get the test,” Vergara said. “Results usually come back in the same amount of time, but if they need a letter back to work, or back to school, there might be some delays with that.”

And issues with testing availability caused major problems before: A lack of reliable testing options in the fall and winter, combined with a surge in cases, led to people turning to questionable pop-up testing sites. Several of the companies that ran those sites or processed their tests are facing federal and state investigations after Block Club showed how they collected hundreds of millions from the federal government while processing tests incorrectly and failing inspections, among other issues.

And officials have warned there could be another surge in cases as Omicron’s BA.2 sub-variant spreads in the United States. The sub-variant — which is even more contagious than Omicron — makes up more than 50 percent of recent cases in the Midwest, Chicago health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said during a livestream Tuesday.

Chicago is already seeing a bump in cases — it’s reporting an average of 284 per day as of Tuesday, as well as 509 in the past day — but Arwady has said she expected that after the city relaxed its COVID-19 safety guidelines. She’s said Chicago’s outbreak remains in control.

Past surges have led to more people getting vaccinated, boosted or tested.

But there are few city-run testing sites in Chicago, and the state closed the testing and vaccination sites it ran last week. That means people must now turn to other providers — like clinics, pharmacies, pop-ups and at-home tests — for their needs. Those are the spots that were overwhelmed during the Omicron surge — and are now facing a funding shortfall from the feds.

State officials said last week Illinois is “strongly positioned” to act if there’s another surge in cases, as the state has stockpiled more than 1.5 million rapid tests and expects to get another 500,000 in coming weeks.

Officials have also talked to hospital, school and local health department leaders about their testing abilities and readiness for a potential surge.

State officials are also speaking with pharmacy workers and health care providers to ensure they have an inventory of approved treatments for the virus, according to the state health department.

Officials are still urging people to get vaccinated and tested and are trying to find ways to keep it affordable should federal funding not come through.

‘The Concern Is If That Wave Hits, There’s Nowhere To Go’

Arwady said vaccinations remain free for all Chicagoans, regardless of their immigration status or if they have insurance. No one should be turned away from getting vaccinated or boosted in Chicago, and they should not be asked to pay, Arwady said Tuesday.

People can also still get vaccinated at home through the city — though the at-home program has cut the number of days it’ll provide vaccinations. Arwady previously said that was done to save money because of the funding gap from the feds.

Providers remain worried that they won’t be able to provide all residents the care they need to be protected against COVID-19.

A group called MobileVax held vaccination events in low-income areas and neighborhoods with more undocumented or uninsured residents, becoming a lifeline for vulnerable populations, said Chief Strategy Officer Jamie Tountas.

MobileVax gave people a trusted place to get vaccinated without having to have insurance, show their ID or note their citizenship status, but the group had to drastically reduce the number of vaccination events because federal funding has dried up, Tountas said.

“If we do have a breakout here, there’s no where to go that is easily accessible” for vaccines, Tountas said. “The concern is if that wave hits, there’s nowhere to go.

“We have seen the need for how important this funding is because we’ve been the boots on the ground. To know this got turned off like running water is a serious concern.”

While people without insurance can still get services from MobileVax, the amount of uninsured people the team can vaccinate is “a smaller number than we were able to before,” Tountas said. And MobileVax has had to ask for insurance information at the events it is still able to host.

Having to ask people for information can also scare off some of the most vulnerable residents, including undocumented people or those without insurance.

“There’s still that fear that if I go, I’m going to get in trouble,” Tountas said. “Once you’re establishing a relationship in that community … they know it’s a safe haven. I know my family wouldn’t go to a city or state clinic because they don’t have the proper documentation.”

MobileVax was a provider for the city’s at-home vaccination program and for the Illinois Department of Public Health’s outreach efforts. The company was doing up to 15 state-sponsored vaccine events per day — but it’s no longer doing any events for the state program since the federal funding ended, Tountas said.

Vaccinations:

• In Illinois, about 8.2 million people — or 64.43 percent of the state’s 12.7 million people — are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to state data.

• Across the state, 16,183 vaccine doses are being administered per day, based on a seven-day rolling average.

• Illinois and Chicago have administered at least 21,443,680 vaccine doses of the 25,929,245 provided to them.

• City data shows more than 1.8 million Chicagoans — or 68.6 percent of all residents — are fully vaccinated, and 77.4 percent of all Chicagoans have gotten at least one shot.

Everyone 5 and older is eligible to get vaccinated in Chicago.

COVID-19 vaccinations are free and do not require insurance. Anyone can call the city’s coronavirus hotline at 312-746-4835 to get more information on how and where to get vaccinated in their community.

The numbers:

• Since Monday, 34 Illinoisans were reported dead from COVID-19.

• At least 33,434 people have died from COVID-19 in Illinois, and another 4,293 deaths are probably related to the virus, according to the state.

• The state reported 1,798 cases since Monday. That brings the total number of confirmed cases in Illinois up to 3,074,434.

• Since Monday, 39,447 tests were reported statewide. In all, 57,594,203 tests have been reported in Illinois.

• Illinois’ seven-day case positivity rate was at 1.9 percent. The figure represents the percentage of people testing positive among recent tests. It was at 1.9 percent Monday.

• Illinois’ seven-day test positivity rate, which measures the percentage of tests that were positive, was at 2 percent. It was at 1.9 percent Monday.

• As of Monday night, 76 people with COVID-19 were in the ICU and 26 people with COVID-19 were using ventilators in Illinois.

• In Chicago, three deaths were reported since Monday. There have been at least 7,336 deaths from COVID-19 in Chicago. The city is seeing an average of less than one person dying per day, down 50 percent from a week ago.

• Chicago has had 509 confirmed cases reported since Monday. It’s had a total of 567,492 confirmed cases. An average of 284 confirmed cases are being reported per day, up 33 percent from a week ago.

• Testing in Chicago is down 2 percent from a week ago.

• Chicago’s positivity rate was at 1.6 percent, up from 1.2 percent a week ago.

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