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Peoria NAACP President Says City Needs Its Own Expanded COVID-19 Testing Site

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Tim Shelley / Peoria Public Radio
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Pastor Marvin Hightower of the Peoria NAACP

Peoria NAACP president Marvin Hightower is lobbying for an expanded COVID-19 testing site in the East Bluff, South Side, or central Peoria.<--break->

Hightower, who also serves a pastor at Liberty Church, said greater access to COVID-19 testing is needed for African American populations in Peoria, who predominately live in the city's southern half.<--break->

"For our local African American community, we have been in crisis for years, and this pandemic is putting a spotlight on it," he said.<--break->

Statewide, black Illinoisans account for a disproportionate share of the state's confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 6,331 African Americans versus 6,127 whites with the virus as of Wednesday. Blacks also accounted for 37 percent of the state's 948 COVID-19 deaths, despite comprising just 14 percent of the state's racial makeup.<--break->

Peoria County just began releasing demographics data on COVID-19 patients last week. Whites make up 61 percent, and black or African Americans made up 27 percent of the county's 33 confirmed COVID-19 cases. The county's population is 19 percent black; the city of Peoria's black population is 27 percent.<--break->

Hightower said while much of the focus on COVID-19's disproportionate impact on African Americans is in Chicago, the situation is likely similar here, but masked by a relative lack of testing.

<--break->"As the old saying goes, what happens up there will eventually or has hit here," he said. "We just don't know to what extent."<--break->

Of those tested locally, positive cases are most highly concentrated in the 61615 (north Peoria), 61604 (central Peoria) and 61611 (East Peoria) ZIP codes, according to state health data. Peoria City/County Health Department administrator Monica Hendrickson said that's likely due to more testing and surveillance done in those areas due to higher concentrations of nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

<--break->Hightower said the federally-funded Bloomington testing site operated by the Illinois National Guard is too far to access for people who have economic or transportation challenges—particularly those who rely on public transportation, which doesn't connect Peoria to McLean County.<--break->

The Bloomington drive-thru testing site has an allotment of 250 tests a day on a first-come, first-served basis for those who meet the testing criteria, but regularly uses no more than half of them, even after restrictions were loosened to open up the testing to more people.<--break->

"So if we had it locally, here in the metropolitan city of Peoria, which is the biggest city in this county, it may make it more accessible for those who may be infected and just not know it," he said.<--break->

He said that problem is compounded by higher rates of diabetes, lupus, and other conditions more prevalent among the black community that, when combined with COVID-19, can become "a death sentence."<--break->

Dr. Rahmat Na'Allah, a Peoria obstetrician, recently said minorities need to work "twice as hard" to protect themselves COVID-19 because there are various economic and societal factors which place them more at risk.<--break->

"We have to work twice as hard. Just assume that we're going to get it, and we're probably going to go down faster, because we don't have the luxury to be apart, and to heal faster than the rest of the people," she said.

Hightower is asking both local and congressional efforts to help bring a testing site to the 61603, 61604, or 61605 ZIP code.<--break->

<--break->"The bottom line is, we need to have the test here in Peoria. Specifically the areas that are least likely to have healthcare coverage," Hightower said.<--break->

For the city's part, Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis said communication efforts are key.<--break->

"What we have been doing is actively working to help get the message out, especially out into the minority community, and to the different demographics that may not use this medium that we're in right now [Facebook Live] as their traditional source of information," Ardis said. "So that's what we're really doing, is trying to get this information out who might not really know this or understand the gravity of this situation."<--break->

Hendrickson previously said Peoria was on an application list to receive an expanded COVID-19 testing site similar to the one set up in Bloomington for the central region of the state. And she said there are testing assets on the way to universities and federally-funded health centers across the country to address the large-scale testing shortage.<--break->

"Right now, we have limitations in terms of reagent and product. And so as that keeps growing, then we'll be able to expand our testing capabilities overall," she said.<--break->

Hendrickson also said a shift to antibody testing for people who have already contracted COVID-19 and are now immune is coming as healthcare and elected officials look for a "light at the end of the tunnel" and a return to normalcy.<--break->

"Without having that antibody testing available, regardless of the current testing for symptoms, we are really going to be basing a lot of our knowledge on surveillance and just general capacity of our healthcare providers to understand where we sit in this response," she said.<--break->

Editor's note: Hightower is a pastor at Liberty Church, not Mt. Zion Baptist Church. We regret the error.

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