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New Illinois National Guard coronavirus testing site for first responders and health care workers reaches capacity after four hour

Monday, March 23, 2020
Chicago Tribune
by Javonte Anderson and Stacy St. Clair

The Illinois National Guard on Monday started testing first responders and health care workers for the coronavirus at a newly opened site on the Northwest Side, prompting a huge response that led to the facility hitting its daily quota after less than four hours.

About 115 recently activated service members are assigned to the testing site, which is in a former vehicle emissions testing center near Harlem Avenue and Irving Park Road. The site will only do 250 tests a day on a first-come-first-served basis, according to the Chicago Fire Department.

Shortly after noon, dozens of vehicles spanned several blocks of Forest Preserve Drive as drivers waited their turn. Two Guard members in green fatigues could be seen outside the facility, as police officers guarded the site and directed traffic.

After cars pulled in, medical technicians, covered head-to-toe in blue jumpsuits, approached the vehicles and worked in tandem with Guard members wearing face masks and gloves to conduct the tests.

“We often see (Illinois National Guard members) fighting floods across the state and see them doing other important things,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said at his Monday briefing. “It’s rare that we get to see them in action in as what I would describe as professional capacities, truly helping people in this state through this pandemic.”

Shortly before 1 p.m., the site had depleted its daily allocation of COVID-19 tests and stopped accepting vehicles, according to the Fire Department. Eligible patients were told to return Tuesday morning when the queue resumes.

“No more vehicles are allowed in line,” the department tweeted. “Fresh line starts at 9 a.m. Please no more vehicles today.”

A sign posted outside by the Illinois Department of Public Health read: “Testing Facility Pre-Approved Patients Only.” First responders and health care workers must bring identification proving their employment in order to be tested. Family members are not eligible for testing at the site, which is being referred to by state officials as the Harwood Heights Community-Based Testing Site.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services set up similar drive-thru coronavirus testing sites for first responders and health care workers at Walmart parking lots in Joliet and Northlake this weekend. Both quickly filled to capacity Sunday.

The new Northwest Side site comes amid several positive tests among the Chicago Police Department’s ranks. The department has three members with confirmed COVID-19 cases, all of whom work in different places.

In south suburban Blue Island, police officers were pulled off the streets and out of the station early Sunday after the city learned one of their ranks had tested positive for the virus.

Mayor Domingo Vargas said he made the call to send officers home after consulting with the police chief, and state and county health officials. The Cook County sheriff’s department has assigned deputies to service the community.

The Guard’s involvement with testing may help blunt rumors about its role during the pandemic, which gained speed last week after Gov. J.B. Pritzker activated 60 members of a Peoria-based medical unit and then issued a stay-at-home order a few days later.

The number of activated troops has roughly doubled since the initial call-up, with the vast majority assigned to the Chicago testing site. State officials did not respond to questions about additional activations.

The governor repeatedly has said service members will have no role in enforcing in the stay-at-home order. Pritzker said irresponsible social media users, as well as Russian and Chinese meddlers, spread disinformation about the Guard being deployed to enforce a quarantine.

Most of the activated troops are health care professionals — doctors, nurses, medical technicians — who would not be tapped for a law enforcement assignment.

Brig. Gen. Richard Neely, the Illinois Guard adjutant general, told reporters Monday that activated service members also have been deployed to help inventory and distribute personal protective equipment around the state.

The Guard’s medical units routinely conduct tabletop exercises on pandemics and have had multiple practice runs on implementing the National Strategic Stockpile, the country’s stash of potentially lifesaving pharmaceuticals and medical supplies for use in a public health emergency severe enough to cause local supplies to run out.

The Guard’s special engineering team also is inspecting former hospital sites around the state to determine whether they could be reopened to provide additional beds if needed. In addition to determining a building’s medical capabilities, the engineers are looking at the heating, cooling, plumbing and electrical services in each building and how quickly they can be turned on.

“When the governor talks about the professionals of the National Guard, these are your citizen soldiers ... that are trained in many skill sets,” Neely said. “Unlike a flood where a lot of times you’re doing a lot of security ... this time they’re bring out a lot of key, acutely needed specialties.”



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