With the omicron variant surging throughout the country and the Springfield area reporting the most daily COVID-19 cases of any point during the two-year pandemic, finding testing presents residents with a large array of options, some of them costly, and some untrustworthy or unreliable.
For employees concerned about exposure or in need of testing not provided by their employer and for parents worried over a child's symptoms, a COVID-19 test remains tough to obtain within a time frame that accommodates the demands of work or school.
"Right now, in the state of Illinois and the country, the health care system is strained in a way that most of us have never seen. Omicron has spread like wildfire and lots of people want to be tested because they have symptoms or exposure, or are simply concerned," said Raj Govindaiah, chief physician executive of Memorial Health in Springfield. "Unfortunately, that demand has outstripped the ability to get tested in many circumstances. We know this because when you go to buy a rapid home test, they are really hard to come by. So if you're unsure if you need a test, contact your primary care physician, go to an urgent care or schedule a telehealth appointment."
At-home tests sold at pharmacy or retail locations, such as the BinaxNOW antigen test, are priced at $24 per two tests before tax, but were listed as out of stock at all but two stores within 45 miles of Springfield as of Jan. 14. Walgreens locations will provide drive-thru testing, but as of Jan. 14, six of its nine Springfield locations showed no appointments available. Of those that did have openings, the soonest available time slots were three days away. CVS also offers drive-thru testing and showed some available time slots three days out.
Pop-up testing sites have risen to meet the demand, but Attorney General Kwame Raoul warned against the unlicensed, unregulated providers in a statement he issued last week.
"The omicron variant has compelled many residents to seek COVID-19 testing in order to protect themselves and their families. The increased need for testing has also resulted in testing shortages, leading people to visit so-called 'pop-up' testing locations," Raoul said. "It is important for people to know that these sites are not licensed or regulated by a government agency, and they should ask questions before visiting a pop-up testing location – or try to utilize a state-sponsored testing site."
One pop-up site in Springfield, operated by the Illinois-based company Center for COVID Control, was closed as of Jan. 14 after reports it is suspending operations following allegations the company has given out faulty test results, failed to produce results or provided results so long after the initial test that the results were of no use. A sign on the front door said it will remain closed through Jan. 21 in order to "retrain our management and staff." A spokeswoman for the Illinois Attorney General's Office confirmed the office has opened an investigation into the company.
Americans can now be reimbursed for COVID tests they bought over-the-counter on or after Jan. 15, but only if they have a private health insurance plan. The reimbursement covers up to eight at-home tests per insured person per month, and in order to get reimbursement, the insured needs to submit a claim through their health care provider, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the federal agency that oversees some aspects of COVID testing. In practice, those with medical insurance will need to ask their provider how to go about being reimbursed for tests.
As of Jan. 19, the federal government will make up to four at-home test kits per person available for free through the website COVIDTest.gov. The Biden administration announced last month it would purchase and distribute 500 million test kits to help address nationwide shortages and has already doubled that commitment to 1 billion test kits amid a surge in COVID cases. The kits will be mailed to homes through the U.S. Postal Service.
Govindaiah advised anyone looking for reputable, high-quality tests to start with the tests available in physicians' offices, urgent care locations, pharmacies and local public health departments. In light of the strain on all levels of the health care system the wave of omicron variant infections has caused, Govindaiah said residents should avoid going to an emergency room for a test, stressing how much more communicable omicron has proved to be.
Memorial Health published information earlier this month about the asymptomatic spread of COVID-19 and how it is much more prevalent now than in previous waves of the virus. Memorial cited a 1 in 19 rate of asymptomatic COVID-19 in November 2020, meaning that for every 19 people in a room, one person was likely to have an asymptomatic case of COVID-19. That rate was 1 in 40 in June 2021. The current rate of asymptomatic cases in Sangamon County, according to Memorial, is now at 1 in 6, meaning that one in every six people in Sangamon County is likely to have an asymptomatic case of COVID-19.
"Go to the ER if you're sick, but if you can go somewhere else, do so, so that we can preserve ER capacity," Govindaiah advised residents.
Reliable test sites
Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul has advised Illinoisans to consult the following public health websites for comprehensive lists of state-supported and other vetted local COVID-19 testing sites:
• The Illinois Department of Public Health: https://dph.illinois.gov/covid19/testing.html
• The Sangamon County Department of Public Health: https://scdph.org/covid-19/#covid-19-testing-sites
• The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: https://www.hhs.gov/coronavirus/community-based-testing-sites/index.html
Those who believe they've experienced profiteering or price gouging while purchasing tests are also encouraged to file a complaint, Raoul said, at the following website: https://www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov/consumers/filecomplaint.html