Demand for testing decreasing as Omicron recedes, state officials say, but testing concerns linger

Changes in testing and possible mask guidance come as health experts identified BA.2, a more contagious version of Omicron.
Illinois state officials announced changes are coming to state-runt testing locations as the Omicron surge recedes. But while hospitalizations and cases decline, some health experts are becoming just as concerned as they are hopeful. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

As of this week, community-based state testing sites will only operate Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. They had previously operated Sunday through Saturday. Hours of operations, however, will remain the same.

This comes as the Omicron surge continues to decline across the state and nation. The demand for testing is also declining, according to state officials.

“ We have seen an 87% drop in testing across the 10 state CBTS locations from the first of the year until now, and most locations are averaging fewer than 500 tests a week,” officials said in a statement.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are expected to announce changes to indoor mask guidance this week. And if the outlook continues to improve, Illinois will lift the indoor mask mandate February 28.

But relaxed restrictions – and reduced testing options – are fueling concern among health experts as BA.2, a more contagious version of the Omicron variant, spreads from coast to coast.

While it is too early to tell if the new Omicron version will lead to another surge or delay the decline in COVID-19 cases, it accounts for 3.9% of cases nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

During the height of the Omicron surge, people nationwide struggled to find testing locations ahead of holiday travel.

Testing woes including delayed and incorrect results added fuel to the fire, prompting local, state, and federal officials to expand testing amid criticism as the highly contagious variant exposed a weakness in the nation’s COVID-19 response — now 3 years into the pandemic.

Last month, the state announced ProjectACT, a collaborative effort among healthcare and technology makers that made 25,000 at-home test kits more available. In partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation, health care technology company CareEvolution, test manufacturer iHealth Labs, and distribution giant Amazon, residents in select zip codes across 14 counties can request a kit.

You can also request up to 4 free at-home tests per household from the federal government, which are shipped through the United States Postal Service.

But health and housing advocates have criticized the amount of tests permitted, arguing that households with more than 4 people are inherently at a disadvantage. Some have noted racial and economic disparities in access to affordable housing have multiple generations of many Black, Brown, and poor families cramped under one roof.

On Friday, state officials reported 20,986 confirmed and probable COVID-19 cases across Illinois since February 11. That’s down 30% from just a week prior, when the state reported 29,939 cases since February 4.

As of February 17, there were 1,590 people hospitalized with COVID-19. Of those, 303 patients are in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and 132 were on ventilators.

Illinois State Department of Public Health reported the statewide test positivity rate, which measures the total number of positive COVID-19 tests for 7 days by the total number of COVID-19 tests performed during the same 7-day period, has declined to 3.1%, down from 5.8% the week of February 11.


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