Public health officials say all who tested at site will receive results

ROCKFORD — In a span of about five hours on Wednesday, Winnebago County officials went from questioning COVID-19 test result delays to suspending testing at a drive-thru site and, finally, saying everything would continue as usual the next day.

The saga started around 3 p.m. when Winnebago County Board Chairman Frank Haney raised issue with more than 2,100 COVID-19 test specimens that had been sent to a state-contracted laboratory, but the results had yet to be returned to public health officials here. Haney sent a letter to Gov. JB Pritzker questioning the missing results and released the letter publicly, saying local health officials have been trying for more than a week to obtain the results of the tests.

By 7 p.m., the Winnebago County Health Department said it would suspend the drive-thru testing site at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford where those specimens were gathered until the issue was resolved. Less than an hour and a half later, the county said it worked with the Illinois Department of Public Health and the governor’s office to switch laboratories to one that could report electronically and provide results more quickly.

Drive-thru testing at the college, 1601 Parkview Ave., will continue from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week as normal.

"I’m appreciative of the quick action after the issue was raised," Haney said around 9 p.m. Wednesday. "I’m happy there was progress made. We need to be proactive. That was a problem that wasn’t being solved over close to two weeks."

Earlier in the day, Haney’s letter stated that obtaining test results was expected to take three or four days, but "has evolved into a 13-day process with no end in sight."

His letter urged the governor’s office to solve the issue with the "missing tests."

The governor’s office said Wednesday night that test results were never missing, something the local health department had also stressed earlier in the day.

"Individuals tested at that site should be assured that their specimens have been properly handled and tested," Winnebago County Health Department Administrator Sandra Martell said in a statement.

Rather, the laboratory the specimens were sent to used paper test results that couldn’t quickly be provided to local public health officials. The contractor tried to notify people tested at the site of their results, but there was a delay in sharing those results with the county, state and local officials said.

Now, the college testing site will switch to "using an established laboratory that has demonstrated capacity and the ability to report electronically," Martell said in a statement released later Wednesday evening.

"The Illinois Department of Public Health has developed a work-around to obtain copies of paper test results for all who were already tested through this location and will ensure that the Winnebago County Health Department receives results for individuals in their county as well as other impacted local health departments in the region," Martell said. "Once results are received at the local health department, we will work to notify those tested and conduct contact tracing."

The governor’s office said the county did not have the authority to suspend testing at the site, which was setup in partnership with the Illinois National Guard and the Illinois Department of Public Health.

A total of 8,260 tests had been conducted in Winnebago County as of Wednesday. Nearly 16% of the 4,490 tests that have been processed were COVID-19 positive. However, there are 3,770 test results pending, including the 2,100 cited by Haney. The test results not received from the laboratory in question account for 55% of the pending results.

"This type of situation severely undercuts our ability to trust the data, make data-driven decisions, and paint an accurate picture of our public health reality in our community and at the regional level," Haney said in his letter to Pritzker.

The test results also are needed to develop one of the key metrics to determine whether our 27-county region, designated the North Central region in Pritzker’s reopening plan, can advance to the next phase of reopening the economy.

All of Illinois is in Phase 2 of Pritzker’s five-phase plan. To reach Phase 3, the rate of positive tests for COVID-19 must be less than 20%, and the rate must not increase more than 10 percentage points for 14 days, among other criteria.

Phase 3 allows for the reopening of manufacturing facilities, offices, retail stores, barbershops and salons. It’s not until Phase 4 of the plan that gatherings of more than 50 people will be allowed and that restaurants and bars can reopen.

Kevin Haas:; @KevinMHaas