CHAMPAIGN — Restaurants are reopening, students are returning to school to school and COVID-19 vaccinations are well underway.
But despite the hopeful signs for everyone fed up with the pandemic, some local health experts are concerned about less COVID-19 testing going on right when safety restrictions have loosened and a new, more contagious strain begins to circulate.
“Testing is down, and we really want anyone who has been around people, going to restaurants or bars, movies, etc., to test,” said C-U Public Health District Administrator Julie Pryde. “Testing is key to helping stop an outbreak.”
Compared with two months ago — when COVID-19 was spreading at a level that prompted the state to bring back restrictions that had been lifted in the summer — testing sites in Champaign County have been seeing a lower volume.
The state’s community testing site at Market Place Mall was averaging 700 tests a day back in November but is now averaging about 300 tests a day, according to the health district.
Carle Health did about 7,000 tests at its Champaign testing site on Mattis Avenue during the first week of November and about 3,000 tests last week, according to Carle spokesman Kaleb Miller.
Christie Clinic has also seen a decline recently — specifically in the number of tests done for patients with symptoms and those exposed to positive COVID-19 cases — but has continued testing at the same pace for patients required to test prior to medical procedures, according to Michelle Antonacci, clinical services director.
“Testing is down, yes,” she said. “Cases are also down. Many of the tests we do were direct close contact(s), and with fewer positive cases, we would expect less tests related to exposure.”
Dr. Robert Healy, Carle’s chief medical quality officer, said it’s likely there’s been less testing lately because there’s been less COVID-19 going around in the community and fewer people have developed symptoms.
Fewer new COVID-19 cases is great news, he said, but this isn’t the time to let your guard down.
With University of Illinois students returning, school starting back up and the new more infectious COVID-19 strain, “we’re not out of the woods yet,” he said.
After the case surges of November and December, Healy understands people are excited to see fewer new cases and that vaccinations are progressing.
“There’s so much hope, but unfortunately, we have to hunker down,” he said.
Thousands of people are still getting tested every day in Champaign County, though the majority of the tests are being done on the University of Illinois campus, where the numbers of daily saliva tests have shot back up since students returned mid-month.
How much testing has fallen off in the rest of the county remains to be seen in the final days of January.
According to state public-health data for Champaign County — excluding UI tests — there were 43,457 tests in November, 41,028 in December and 31,795 from Jan. 1-24.
Ford County Public Health Department Community Health Educator Megan Reutter has also seen a decline in COVID-19 tests in her county, with just over 5,000 in December and just over 3,000 in the first 26 days of this month.
With COVID-19 mitigation restrictions loosening, she said, “we’re wondering what’s going to happen now.”
The Ford County agency just recently got caught up on contact tracing after the big surge of the fall and is just beginning Phase 1B in vaccinations, Reitter said.
It’s going to take some time to complete 1B, which in Ford County is beginning with critical front-line workers and then moving on to older adults, she said.
Testing in Vermilion County may also be seeing a drop off, with 17,568 tests for the first 24 days of December and 14,649 tests for the same period this month.
Likewise in Piatt County, where there were 3,403 tests for Dec. 1-24 and 2,733 tests for Jan. 1-24.
Vermilion County Health Department Administrator Doug Toole said the mobile testing van in that county has had times of high demand and other days with fewer than a couple dozen people turning up.
It’s hard to say if fewer cases means less COVID-19 circulating or just less testing, Toole said, but he does know it’s definitely not the time to ease up on testing.
“We are still very much in this pandemic,” he said.