KANKAKEE — The Kankakee County Health Department launched a free COVID-19 testing program Wednesday morning only to suspend it a few hours later due to the strain it exerted on the workforce, county health administrator John Bevis said Thursday.
He said the department decided to attempt drive-up testing a few weeks ago, before Gov. JB Pritzker’s new indoor mask mandate and vaccine and testing requirements for educators and health workers were announced. The goal was to remove some of the barriers community members might face to get tested.
“We don’t have to do this testing but we thought it would be good for the community,” he said. “We didn’t recognize the amount of activity it was going to require and it was going to take too many people, so we had to pull the plug.”
Before starting testing, Bevis said the department planned to have two employees handling the paperwork when people drove up to get tested between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. They did not know what to expect for turnout.
After posting about the free testing on Facebook Wednesday morning, the staff was immediately overwhelmed, Bevis said. There were always three to four cars in line, some full with four or more people wanting tests.
“We knew that [Wednesday’s] 50 people within a couple of hours will probably result into hundreds a day. And that’s just too much for us,” he said.
The department was short-staffed for the day but pulled more workers to help out, including someone to direct traffic in the parking lot, Bevis said.
He said that the actual process of taking tests and delivering results went fairly well, but demand would increase as the health department was recommended as a resource and individuals who are now required to get regular testing set up routines.
“We need to put our focus back on the contact tracing and the education of the public and vaccinating people, and leave the testing to other agencies that are already doing it,” Bevis said.
The county has several testing sites in operation, which can be found at bit.ly/K3testing. Bevis said he thinks there are enough testing sites to meet current demand in the county since they were not overrun last fall and early winter when the county experienced its peak in cases.
The health department has no date or plan to resume testing at this time, Bevis said, but it will request an Illinois Department of Public Health mobile testing unit to come to the county.
“It takes the stress and burden off the staff of the health department and then accomplishes getting people in the community tested,” he said. “And if 200 people come to it a day for them, that’s great, that’s what the state wants, but it’s not a number that the health department staff can maintain.”
Many health departments do not run their own testing, Bevis said, and he spoke with other administrators who said they would not have attempted it.
“It overwhelmed us and I apologize for that, but at least we tried,” he said. “We can see now, you know, if we do it in the future, what we would need.”