URBANA — Talks are underway to potentially make the University of Illinois’ twice-a-week COVID-19 saliva-based testing available to some local government employees.
But at a charge of $10 to $20 per test, cost may be a sticking point.
Champaign County Executive Darlene Kloeppel said regularly testing county employees using saliva-based testing would run $20 per employee per test, and the county hasn’t budgeted for that.
Cost and other details remain to be worked out, and it would be up to the county board to decide, she said.
Both mayors of Champaign and Urbana said the cities are interested, if details can be worked out.
“It’s certainly not a done deal, but we’re pursuing it,” said Champaign Mayor Deb Feinen.
UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the university is hopeful it can begin rolling out its saliva-based testing to local governments and schools soon.
“We have been working with the Champaign and Urbana mayors and city managers, as well as the Champaign County executive and heads of various county departments, on various logistical matters to be able to enroll their employees,” Kaler said. “We are hopeful that within the next couple of weeks, working with our community partners, we will start testing first responders, government employees, schools, some underserved groups and dependents of university employees.”
Feinen said meetings between the city and the UI about testing began late last year.
Some city employees are working from home, so if the city moves forward with saliva testing, it wouldn’t likely be for every employee, she said.
Testing cost is a factor, Feinen said, “because it’s not insignificant.”
Champaign Human Resources Director Amanda Farthing said the city is still waiting on the UI for a final price per test. The city does have some reserves to cover the cost, but $10 a test would be feasible and more than that likely wouldn’t be, she said.
Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin said the city was quoted a price of $10 per saliva test.
Whether it’s $10 or $20, she said the city doesn’t have grant funding to cover the cost.
Meetings with the UI continue, but meanwhile, Urbana recently began doing weekly rapid antigen testing for COVID-19 on employees regularly coming into work in person, Marlin said.
That testing isn’t as accurate as the UI’s saliva tests, she said, but it’s fast and something the city was able to implement after getting the tests free from the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District.
If Urbana goes ahead with saliva testing for its employees, Marlin said it would probably be for all employees, though it wouldn’t be as important to get those who work from home tested as it would be for public works employees, first responders, executive staff and others coming into work in person.
Urbana has experienced firsthand what impact COVID-19 can have on city services. The city announced Monday that its public works department was working significantly understaffed due to COVID-19, and while snow-plow crews were working, service wouldn’t be up to the city’s usual standards.
Kloeppel said some issues for the county, in addition to how to cover the cost of the tests, would be which of its hundreds of employees would be tested and where the testing would take place.
“All the logistics would have to be worked out,” she said.
The topic was raised briefly Tuesday night at a county board committee-of-the-whole meeting. The board wasn’t able to obtain data ahead of the meeting to be able to discuss it, so the goal is to have more information for the Feb. 18 full board meeting, Chairman Kyle Patterson said.
“The entire Democratic caucus appears to be in support of taking part in this program and sees it as a valuable tool to keeping our employees safe,” Patterson said. “County employees do very important work, and an outbreak in any of our offices could have a large impact on county services and compromise the health and safety of our employees. We are very fortunate to be in a county that has the University of Illinois, which is an invaluable resource.”
Some county employees have already been eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine — including the sheriff’s office, coroner’s office, probation and court services — and many other departments will be eligible soon, according to a memo Kloeppel sent to a few county board members.
Kloeppel also said 92 out of 660 county employees (not including those at the Regional Planning Commission) are 65 or older and eligible for vaccination, and 83 county employees have had COVID-19 since March 2020.
Interest in saliva-based testing varies among county departments, depending on how their offices are set up and how many of their employees have been vaccinated, Kloeppel also said.
Champaign County Circuit Clerk Susan McGrath said she is “absolutely” interested in starting UI saliva testing for her employees, who not only serve the public in person at the courthouse but are also seated less than 6 feet away from each other.
County department heads have held virtual meetings with UI officials about saliva testing, she said, but in the absence of grant money, the county would have to foot the cost.
Still, McGrath said, she sees $20 per test as a generous offer on the part of the university.
“It’s kind of a goodwill gesture on their part,” she said.
Meanwhile, next week, the county board will consider McGrath’s request to spend $89,000 to buy and install glass partitions in her office to keep employees safer.
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