At least two Illinois colleges that ordered COVID-19 testing materials from the federal government didn’t receive the supplies because they were abruptly reallocated, curtailing the schools’ ability to provide in-person classes and maintain campus safety, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said at a news conference Monday.
Durbin said Loyola University Chicago and Illinois State University were expecting COVID-19 testing kits and equipment from the manufacturer Quidel this summer, but the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services redirected the materials to other entities under the Defense Production Act, a form of executive power.
“We’re not arguing the merits of where these tests were sent,” the Democratic senator from Illinois said. “Many were sent to nursing homes and that’s clearly a high priority. … But it really reflects the lack of planning ahead of time.”
In response to a Tribune inquiry, HHS did not address questions about the schools but provided details about its program to prioritize the country’s 14,000 nursing homes. HHS said it was working with Quidel and another vendor to deliver rapid antigen tests and equipment to nursing homes through September.
At colleges, however, frequent testing of students and faculty has proved itself key. The ability to perform a large number of tests and get results quickly can help schools identify clusters on campus and salvage in-person learning before a broader outbreak. Not all colleges are requiring asymptomatic students to be tested.
Standing outside Loyola’s medical school in Maywood, Durbin described how Illinois universities painstakingly reconfigured classrooms, developed behavioral protocols and amended teaching plans before learning the tests they ordered weren’t coming. That caused ISU to shift most of its classes — except for art, sciences and music — to online formats and prevented Loyola’s downtown Chicago campus from opening a testing center.
Durbin, who sported a maroon face mask emblazoned with Loyola’s name, said he penned a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar expressing his concerns. The two-page letter asks how HHS will support schools with testing kits and whether it plans to distribute the 150 million Abbott rapid tests in its possession to schools.
In the letter, Durbin called it troubling that HHS “commandeered” the supplies from Loyola and ISU.
Joan Holden, director of Loyola’s campus health center, spoke to the school’s challenges during the news conference. Holden said Loyola ordered analyzer equipment from Quidel in July to expand its testing capacity. But Loyola officials were told they couldn’t get the analyzers because HHS made its own purchase, Holden said.
“Clearly, not having these analyzers limits our ability to provide broad testing for a community the size of Loyola,” Holden said.
Loyola is keeping its residence halls closed this semester and limiting in-person classes, a decision the school made before learning that its supplies were redirected, Holden said.
Since testing began in late July, Loyola has conducted about 850 COVID-19 tests and identified seven positive cases, according to its public dashboard.
The numbers are much higher at ISU in downstate Normal, where dorms are open. The school has conducted nearly 7,600 tests this semester and found 1,383 positive results, according to the school.
In late July, ISU learned it would not receive the supplies it ordered in time for the fall semester, President Larry Dietz said in a campus message. The school had ordered three testing machines and 5,000 reagent kits, according to spokesman Eric Jome.
The school has subsequently contracted with an outside lab to process the results, which can take a few days, Jome said.
“Certainly, it would have been nice to have that equipment in house to be able to have our own staff to turn these things around,” he said, “and to turn things around pretty quickly … the same day.”
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