June 03, 2020

Their Job: Stopping the spread of the virus

The Illinois Department of Public Health, local health departments and public health partners throughout Illinois are working together with federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to respond to the COVID-19 public health emergency. AFSCME members at IDPH in Chicago, Springfield and Carbondale are on the front lines in the battle against the virus, helping save as many lives as possible.

Joel Price

Supervisor, molecular and virology laboratory (Chicago), IDPH, Local 2258 

Every AFSCME member here is working at least part of their work day, in addition to their other responsibilities, helping with the workflow for the COVID testing. We’ve been asked to work extended shifts as we’re anticipating several thousand [tests] a day. Across all the laboratories it could be 5,000 to 10,000 specimens a day.

We’re on our second-generation assay, meaning the testing format, which gives us more throughput, meaning we can do many more specimens in a shift. We work closely with our suppliers to secure all the necessary testing reagents [substances used to detect and measure the virus] to keep the assays up and running. Plasticware is in short supply, so we have a lot of challenges procuring those.

It’s challenging. We’re used to handling infectious specimens all the time, but these are highly complex assays and you need well-trained staff, so we’re training additional people to handle the increased volume. Also, workspaces that are appropriate to handle the specimens can only handle a certain number; viral testing is handled in a biological safety cabinet that allows us to protect ourselves from the specimen and keeps the specimens from being contaminated from other specimens when you’re handling multiple specimens at the same time.

Compared to the last administration, it’s night and day as far as what [the Pritzker Administration] is doing for state employees. I’m a happier state employee in spite of the challenges we’re trying to meet. They’re trying to do their best for the people of the state of Illinois by increasing the capacity and our staff has risen to the challenge. IDPH employees and people from the crime lab of the Illinois State Police are doing a great job supporting one another.

This is our job and it’s very rewarding. We’re here to protect the people of the state of Illinois and that’s what we do best.

Ahmad Abuarqoub

Supervisor, molecular mycobacteriology laboratory (Chicago), IDPh, Local 2258

I come and work on the weekend, also some nights I stay late. Not just me, but other staff. It’s impacting us but we’re so happy to help. This is our job, to jump in and help save Illinois citizens. We cannot say no. It’s about public health. This is our duty.

As a union steward, people come to me concerned when they hear somebody may be positive. They come with concern about their families, their health and their safety.

I’m really proud of all the AFSCME members here. When they heard about this going on, they wanted to jump in and help and be part of the team. They work on their lunch time, their break time. Some work seven, eight hours without taking a break. They come and check on their colleagues, ask if they can help. Before they go home, they ask if they should stay.

They work as one team, showing their unity and power. They are really doing a great job.

Jennifer Noel

Microbiologist, environmental microbiology lab (Springfield), IDPH, Local 805

I’ve been working at the Department of Public Health since 2007 in the environmental microbiology lab. Listeria, salmonella and E.coli are the primary tests we do. The clinical lab does influenza including H1N1, measles, mumps, malaria and other tests. We’ve had big outbreaks in the past, but nothing like this. It’s so contagious and hitting so many people. I’ve never seen anything like it.

To prepare the labs for an influx of COVID-19 tests, the state brought some other staff on temporary assignment and expanded our hours. We’ve never been required to work so many shifts or so much overtime. Right now, we’ve got two shifts overlapping and we’re working on the weekends. Working extended hours keeps the equipment running longer so we can get tests completed quicker.

And we’ve had help. AFSCME Local 1964 members from the four Illinois State Police labs in Springfield are assisting our efforts. They could be working from home, but they are going above and beyond.

We all want to step up and do what we have to do. 

More information, including regularly updated statistics, can be found at

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