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Activists, aldermen call on city to increase COVID-19 testing on South and West sides

Dr. Allison Arwady, who heads up the city’s Department of Public Health, took offense at the notion the city isn’t doing enough to make testing available in all neighborhoods.

Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) speaks Tuesday at a news conference in her South Side ward calling for increased COVID-19 testing on the South and West sides.
Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) speaks Tuesday at a news conference in her South Side ward calling for increased COVID-19 testing on the South and West sides.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Two South Side aldermen joined a coalition of activists Tuesday to call on Mayor Lori Lightfoot to increase COVID-19 testing availability in South, Southwest and West side neighborhoods of color.

Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) and Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez (25th) called for an increase in permanent testing locations and called for testing sites to be open seven days a week during daytime and evening hours.

Extended hours would allow essential workers who have 9-to-5 jobs the opportunity to get tested without having to miss work, Taylor said at a news conference held outside a public health center in Englewood.

“This is not unreasonable for us to ask for,” she said.

Dr. Allison Arwady, who heads up the city’s Department of Public Health, said in response that she, too, wants to extend hours of operations.

“It is true they are not open this point with the full hours that we would like them to be. I would love to extend testing if we get more federal funding,” she said, noting that the city is spending $2 million a week to provide free testing that doesn’t require an appointment or an ID.

Activists called for more permanent testing sites in places where residents commonly go, such as Chicago Public Schools — where families pick up daily meals through the Grab-and-Go program — grocery stores, laundromats, pharmacies, CTA train stops, parks, and churches.

“Too often we wait until it’s too late to do what’s right,” Taylor said. “So let’s do right by our community.”

City data shows that more COVID-19 cases and deaths have been recorded among Black and Brown residents than white residents — a disparity city leaders have attributed to longstanding healthcare inequities.

Arwady said city-run testing efforts are in addition to state-run and private testing sites and said that the city — concerned that about neighborhoods that might have less access to testing — decided to deploy mobile testing sites that are moved every week to respond to localized increases in the virus spread.

“It’s been super successful from an equity perspective,” said Arwady, who took offense at the notion the city isn’t doing enough to make testing available in all neighborhoods. “If you look cumulatively across the whole city, no matter what neighborhood you live in, basically one in four or one in five Chicagoans has been tested for COVID.”

Equity in testing has been one of the city’s main goals, and one Chicago has been held up as a model on how to achieve, Arwady said.

In total, the city’s community-based testing program has conducted 116 mobile testing events, according to a health department spokesman.

Arwady also pushed back on the idea of putting testing sites in proximity to places where healthy people generally go.

“You wouldn’t want to be bringing people into busy public spaces who are seeking COVID testing, because some decent percentage of those people are seeking COVID testing because they are symptomatic,” she said.

Sigcho-Lopez, whose ward includes parts of Pilsen, said testing is too dependent on private medical groups that cost money and require appointments and the system “continues to fail essential workers who are putting the lives of their families at risk.”

Dr. Howard Ehrman, a medical professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who served as assistant commissioner of health under former Mayor Harold Washington, pushed for an increase in permanent testing sites that give community members confidence in knowing where exactly to go to get a test with no hassle.

Time is of the essence, Ehrman said, noting the virus spreads more easily in the winter as people stay inside and social distancing becomes more difficult.