UChicago Medicine expands COVID-19 testing to South Side partners, community organizations

Health system plans to test up to 1,000 symptomatic people each day

Editor’s note: To read more about how UChicago is on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic, visit the Confronting COVID-19 website.

The University of Chicago Medicine health system, including Ingalls Memorial, will expand COVID-19 testing for up to 1,000 symptomatic people each day, a roughly fivefold increase over the average 200 daily tests that were performed since onsite screenings began on March 15.

Testing had previously been limited to employees and eligible symptomatic patients because of a critical shortage of necessary testing supplies, particularly nasal and nasopharyngeal swabs. But an increase in supplies has allowed the four-hospital UChicago Medicine system to expand community screening services to Chicago’s South Side and suburban Harvey. To date, the academic health system has performed more than 7,000 tests. Roughly 20% of patients have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

“We have been able to manage the situation and make real progress on all fronts, and that includes ensuring essential PPE required to protect our colleagues who are caring for our patients is more readily available and successfully launching onsite laboratory testing,” said Kenneth S. Polonsky, executive vice president for medical affairs at the University of Chicago. “Thanks to the outstanding collaboration among our medical and administrative teams, we have been able to secure the needed supplies and provide access to the latest technology to dramatically expand community access to COVID-19 testing.”

The intensified efforts to increase access to testing involve opening up curbside screening in Hyde Park and Harvey to the general public as well as partnering with South Side community hospitals, skilled nursing facilities and federally qualified health centers (FQHCs). Current testing partners include La Rabida Children’s Hospital, St. Anthony Hospital, Palos Heights Hospital, Family Christian Health Center and several long-term care facilities, including Montgomery Place, Symphony South Shore and Villa at Windsor Park. UChicago Medicine will continue to work to add new sites and partners.

“It is a privilege for Ingalls Memorial to be able to offer this essential service to residents of Harvey and our surrounding communities,” said Brian Sinotte, president of Ingalls Memorial and UChicago Medicine’s Community Health and Hospitals Division. “The collaboration with our colleagues in Hyde Park and our shared mission of putting the health of our patients above and beyond all else has allowed us to expand these services to our local community.”

Illinois Governor JB Pritzker has set a goal of conducting as many as 10,000 tests a day across the state. The UChicago Medicine effort, once fully realized, will account for a substantial portion of that figure.

“I thank the University of Chicago Medicine for helping in our efforts to expand testing while ensuring that equity is reflected through their plans,” said Pritzker. “The only way we will win this fight against COVID-19 is to ensure there is widespread testing, especially in our most vulnerable communities. No community should go through this alone and today's announcement represents the very best of Illinois.”

The health system also has invited other FQHCs serving the South Side to participate in the testing program after consulting with the Chicago Department of Public Health and examining data on case and mortality rates. Expanding testing capacity on the South Side is a priority for the city’s newly created Racial Equity Rapid Response Team.

“I applaud UChicago Medicine for outstanding service to our fellow residents and communities throughout this pandemic, both here in Chicago and across our region,” said Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot. “The testing programs provided by UChicago Medicine play an instrumental role in our ability to halt the spread of this disease and treat our areas most in need, as well as level the racial inequity that has been tragically prevalent in COVID-19 cases. It’s because of efforts like these that we will flatten the curve of this virus, get our city back on track and ultimately re-emerge from this crisis stronger than we have ever been.”

UChicago Medicine will not be asking patients to pay for COVID-19 testing. Their insurance plans will be billed for the cost of the test, and the health system will waive co-pays so there will be no out-of-pocket costs to patients. People without insurance also will not face any financial obligations for the test.

“We know expanded testing is vitally important, but it is especially important in communities of color where there is a disproportionately high death rate from this pandemic,” said Brenda Battle, vice president of UChicago Medicine’s Urban Health Initiative and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer. “From a public health perspective, this will provide us the information needed to care for our community, help us control the epidemic and ensure the safety of our colleagues.”

How it works

The new multi-pronged testing effort allows the health system to dramatically increase testing volume. Approximately half of the tests will be available to symptomatic patients who directly contact the health system to request appointments, while the remainder will be reserved for community partners, health care workers, emergency room patients and hospitalized inpatients.

Expanded testing, which allows for results in one to two days, follows one of three formats:

  • Community hospitals, FQHCs and skilled nursing facilities perform swab tests on patients and send those samples to UChicago Medicine’s onsite microbiology lab for analysis. In some cases, UChicago Medicine will provide these agencies with testing materials if they cannot supply their own.
  • Organizations that cannot collect samples from patients will be able to direct their clients, patients and employees to UChicago Medicine. Those individuals will be funneled through an established triage process. Patients who are symptomatic and meet testing criteria will be able to schedule a testing appointment.
  • Members of the public as well as established patients may contact the health system’s triage screening lines. Testing will be available to sick individuals of any age at UChicago Medicine and those who are 18 and older at Ingalls Memorial. Patients who meet testing criteria will be directed to schedule an appointment at curbside clinics at the respective locations. Established patients can also request an eVisit.

Drive-up swab collection visits typically take several minutes to complete. Patients receive information on how to self-isolate and monitor for symptoms after their visits and will get follow-up phone calls with test results in one to two days. All tests require an appointment.

Patients will be considered eligible for tests if they have any symptoms of influenza-like illness, which include fever, cough, stuffy nose, sinus pain, difficulty breathing and body aches. Nurses and healthcare providers are staffing the triage lines (UChicago Medicine: 773-702-2800; Ingalls Memorial: 708-915-2683) and will screen patients before scheduling appointments at the curbside testing clinics.

Additionally, UChicago Medicine has two dedicated outpatient clinics in Hyde Park to care for patients who have COVID-19 but don’t require hospitalization. This allows sick patients to receive medical care — for the virus or for other medical conditions — in an isolated setting that limits the risk of exposure to other patients.

UChicago Medicine, including Ingalls Memorial, currently is caring for a combined 187 hospitalized patients with COVID-19 and an additional 75 patients under investigation. The system has discharged more than 400 COVID-19 patients since the pandemic began.

UChicago Medicine also is directing donations of thousands of gloves, masks and personal protective equipment to a number of community partners who need supplies. To date, UChicago Medicine has donated more than 25,000 gloves, more than 1,500 masks and hundreds of gowns and coveralls to community partners, along with cleaning products and eye protection.

“By expanding access to testing and donating equipment in the most affected areas, UChicago Medicine is proving itself to be a responsible community leader at a critical moment,” said Rev. Julian DeShazier, pastor of University Church and chairman of UChicago Medicine’s Community Advisory Council. “This is life or death on the South Side and other communities like Harvey, and this response shows an attentiveness that will almost certainly save some lives.”

Research efforts

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has energized research-oriented faculty broadly across the University of Chicago to find innovative approaches to preventing, treating and controlling this infection. This includes development of basic science discovery programs and a number of clinical trials.  Examples include the use of the antiviral agent remdesivir and the immune suppressant tocilizumab as well as the COVID-19 convalescent plasma trial, which has just been initiated.

On the clinical front, a team of UChicago Medicine surgeons have established guidance during the COVID-19 pandemic to help prioritize medically necessary, time-sensitive surgical procedures within an appropriate ethical framework. Their guidance was published on the Journal of the American College of Surgeons website.

UChicago Medicine, Ingalls Memorialf COVID-19 screening

UChicago Medicine (Hyde Park): Testing is not available without an appointment. Testing is available to sick patients of any age. If individuals need to be tested, they will be directed to schedule an appointment at a curbside testing location. Call 773-702-2800 (available to the public and established patients) or make a MyChart eVisit (established patients only). Hours may vary based on demand.

  • Telephone triage hours: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday
  • MyChart eVisit hours: Responses by 9 a.m. the following day
  • Testing clinic hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday

Ingalls Memorial (Harvey): Testing is not available without an appointment. Limited testing is available to symptomatic adults only. If individuals need to be tested, they will be directed to schedule an appointment at a curbside testing location. Call 708-915-2683 (available to the public and established patients).

  • Telephone triage hours: 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday
  • Testing clinic hours: 8 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. Monday through Friday

—Article was first published on the UChicago Medicine website.