PEORIA - Of all the tasks Heartland Health Services facility manager Nathan Price has done in the course of setting up Peoria’s first COVID-19 testing site, jump-starting cars has been the easiest.


Twice on Tuesday and once on Wednesday Price had to get out the jumper cables. People who arrived hours before the 9 a.m. opening ran their car batteries down while waiting.


“On Tuesday we had about 45 cars in line within the first hour,” said Price while standing beside the drive-through tents set up outside Heartland Health’s facility at 2321 N. Wisconsin Ave. Thursday. “I’ve had people who said they drove an hour to get here. There was a guy who rode his bike all the way from Lake of the Woods to get here because he had symptoms and wanted to get tested.”


Every day all 150 of the daily allotment of tests has been used before closing time. Though the vast majority of people coming to the site are from the Peoria area, some have come from as far away as Bloomington, said Price.


Organizers had only three days to set up the Wisconsin Avenue testing site. Plans didn’t firm up until late in the afternoon of April 17.


“All the planning happened over the weekend,” said Price. “We’re very thankful to the partnerships that made this happen.”


Price used Google Maps and advice from a number of folks, including the Peoria Police Department, to lay out the site so traffic would flow well. Peoria County Chairman Andrew Rand procured cones and a group of city employees to set them up shortly after Morton and Peoria Rentals erected the drive through tents.


“It was all boots on the ground on Monday and it was all set up by 3:30,” said Price.


Also involved in the effort was the Peoria-based business supply company Bradfield Inc. which supplied printers and toner.


“The governor said to do everything to support local business and we’ve been doing that, and these local businesses have really stepped up to support us,” said Price.


The first testing site is a work-in-progress. What they are learning will make the next two sites run more smoothly from the get-go, said Heartland Health’s Michelle Sanders, who is in charge of the team registering patients before testing. On Thursday the team implemented a new system that kept them away from potentially infectious patients, an effort to use less personal protective equipment. Instead of speaking face-to-face, Patients were asked to call the registration staff sitting just inside the doors of the old Kroger building.


“It’s safer for us for people to call in,” said Sanders. “If they don’t have a phone they register with one of the nurses wearing PPE.”


A total of 12 people are needed to run the site. Though Heartland Health has been able to provide most of the staff for the first site, they are recruiting more people to man the site at the Peoria City/County Health Department, which opens Saturday, and the John H. Gwynn Park site opening Monday.


“It’s going to be interesting with three sites opening,” said Heartland Health’s Marjorie Parent, a nurse who is in charge of everything to do with testing. “Two nurses and myself have been doing the swabbing, and we have another person helping us with the specimens.”


Patients are asked to blow their noses before a nurse inserts a cotton swab through the nose until it hits the nasopharynx, the back of the nose where it joins the throat.


“We let them know it lasts about 10 seconds, and it is uncomfortable. We can’t lie to them about that,” said Sanders. “And we tell them that they will get results in about 24 hours, and to please answer their phones.”


As the vice president of clinical operations at Heartland, Sanders has a lot of experience administering tests, but she has never been involved in a testing effort of this scope.


“This is totally what we needed to do for the community,” she said. “This will help us determine how much COVID there is in our community.”


Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.