Javonte Anderson and Stacy St. Clair
CHICAGO — The Illinois National Guard on Monday started testing first responders and health care workers for the coronavirus at a newly opened site on the Northwest Side, prompting a huge response that saw the facility reach its daily quota after less than four hours.
About 115 recently activated service members are assigned to the testing site at a former vehicle emissions testing facility. The site will only do 250 tests a day on a first-come-first-served basis, according to the Chicago Fire Department.
First responders and health care workers must bring identification proving their employment in order to be tested. Family members are not eligible for testing at the site, which is at 6959 W. Forest Preserve Drive. Near Harlem Avenue and Irving Park Road, it is being referred to by state officials as the Harwood Heights Community-Based Testing Site.
Shortly after noon, dozens of vehicles spanned several blocks of Forest Preserve Drive as drivers waited their turn. Two Guard members in green fatigues could be seen outside the facility, as police officers guarded the site and directed traffic.
Outside, a sign posted by the Illinois Department of Public Health read: “Testing Facility Pre-Approved Patients Only.” Inside the former emission bays, guard members are wearing white face masks and gloves as they swab drive-up patrons.
Shortly before 1 p.m., the site had depleted its daily allocation of COVID-19 tests and stopped accepting vehicles, according to the Fire Department. Eligible patients were told to return Tuesday morning when the queue resumes.
"No more vehicles are allowed in line, the department tweeted. “Fresh line starts at 9am. Please no more vehicles today.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services set up a similar drive-thru coronavirus testing sites for first responders and health care workers at Walmart parking lots in Joliet and Northlake this weekend. Both quickly filled to capacity on Sunday.
The new Northwest Side testing site comes amid several positive tests among the Chicago Police Department’s ranks. The department has three members with confirmed COVID-19 cases, all of whom work in different places.
In south suburban Blue Island, police officers were pulled off the streets and out of the station early Sunday morning after the city learned one of their ranks had tested positive for the virus.
Mayor Domingo Vargas said he made the call to send officers home after consulting with the police chief, and state and county health officials. The Cook County Sheriff’s Department has assigned deputies to service the community.
The Guard’s involvement with the testing may help blunt rumors about their role during the pandemic, which gained speed last week after Gov. J.B. Pritzker activated 60 members of a Peoria-based medical unit and then issued a stay-at-home order a few days later.
The number of activated troops has nearly doubled since the initial call up, with the vast majority assigned to the Chicago testing site. State officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the testing site or additional activations.
The governor repeatedly has said service members will have no role in enforcing any potential order. Pritzker said irresponsible social media users, as well as Russian and Chinese meddlers, spread disinformation about the Guard being deployed to enforce a quarantine.
Most of the activated troops are health care professionals — doctors, nurses, medical technicians — who would not be tapped for a law enforcement assignment.