State launches ‘barrier-free’ COVID-19 testing push

A person wearing a gown puts a swab in a person's nose.
A Minnesota Department of Health contractor administers a nasal swab to Jennifer Vail-Storrs on Wednesday at a COVID-19 drive-thru testing event at the Itasca County Fairgrounds in Grand Rapids, Minn. State officials hope free COVID-19 testing in multiple communities across the state will help mitigate community transmission.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

The commercial building at the Itasca County Fairgrounds in Grand Rapids is usually a showcase for businesses during the fair —  but on Wednesday, it was a COVID-19 mass testing site.

People drove their cars and trucks through a big garage door on one side, where they're greeted by National Guard members. They split into four lanes of traffic, and pull up to a small army of public health workers, clad in clear medical gowns, rubber gloves, masks and face shields, who use long-handled swabs to gather samples from deep in patients’ nostrils —  first one side, then the other.

Wednesday’s testing kicked off a four-week push by state health officials to remove barriers and increase access to COVID-19 tests, as the coronavirus’ hold on Minnesota marches on.

A person holds a vial and nasal swab.
A Minnesota Department of Health contractor holds a vial and a nasal swab while talking to a participant at a COVID-19 drive-thru testing event Wednesday at the Itasca County Fairgrounds in Grand Rapids, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Over the next month, pop-up testing sites will dot the state, offering COVID-19 tests to anyone who wants one —  whether they have symptoms or not. No insurance, no appointment (though they’re recommended), no payment necessary.

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Jennifer Vail-Storrs drove her red pickup through the testing site with her husband Kenneth and teenage son Michael on Wednesday. 

A red truck on the road.
Jennifer Vail-Storrs arrives at a COVID-19 drive-thru testing site in Grand Rapids.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Vail-Storrs said she signed her family up as soon as she heard about the free tests. 

"I got a scary call on Monday morning,” she said. “The assistant principal told me that Michael had sat directly next to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. So, that made coming in for the test even more important." 

The whole process took about five minutes. 

“It wasn't bad at all,” Vail-Stoors laughed. “It made my eyes water a little bit, but that's all. It was perfect. Easy.”

The public health worker who collected samples from Vail-Storrs’ family said they should get their results in three to five days — a phone call if it’s positive; an email and text if it’s negative. 

Until test takers get the official word, state officials recommend they stay at home and away from others, especially if they have symptoms, or if they’ve been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19. 

State and local health officials are focusing this new testing push on areas that have coronavirus clusters in workplaces, towns that border neighboring states and in under-tested areas. They’re hoping the efforts will encourage people who might have otherwise hesitated to be tested.

"We've heard from some community members who felt like they were high-risk or felt like they might have had some exposures and maybe weren't able to access testing, because they didn't meet the criteria,” said Kelly Chandler, Itasca County’s public health director. “And then we certainly hear from persons who are concerned about cost factors that they haven't been able to access testing." 

A person wearing a gown and face mask puts a sample in a bag.
Itasca County Public Health workers Becky Tillma (left) hands a COVID-19 nasal swab sample to Julie Purdum (right) Wednesday.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Chandler said she's seen a steady increase of COVID-19 cases in Itasca County over the past couple weeks. 

Just the night before the fairgrounds site opened, the Grand Rapids school district, ISD 318, and several other districts in the region, announced that middle and high schoolers would move from in-person classes to a hybrid learning model, due to the increase of cases in the county. 

"We know that there's been some asymptomatic spread in our community,” she said. “And we know that there's gatherings and work sites and some places that have exposures and someone might not even know that they've been exposed. And so it's important that we have the opportunity for them to be tested so they can take appropriate measures to prevent the spread."

Chandler said she’s heard some concerning rumors about people encouraging each other to avoid testing —  out of a fear that more positive cases could shut down schools. 

But, she says, that's counterproductive. 

"It is true, that if our numbers go up, it could affect schools,” she said, “but our numbers affected schools prior to this [testing] event, they made the shift yesterday. So our numbers are already going up."

Even if people don't have symptoms, they could still have —  and spread —  the virus, which in the long run could have an even bigger impact on the schools’ plans. 

Grand Rapids schools Superintendent Matt Grose said he'll be watching the one-day testing event’s results closely. The district has had a handful of cases among students and staff. 

"It'll give us an idea of what's really happening in our community. And I think that's the whole point behind the event —  to get an accurate picture of what's happening," he said.

Three people wearing personal protective equipment stand at a table.
From left: Naesa Myers, Brennen Sietsema and Kate Sietsema work to process COVID-19 nasal swab samples and prepare for another testing participant.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

He said the pop-up site’s testing results will be one of several data points the district will use to help determine future plans. 

Itasca county residents already can access nasal swab tests at a handful of locations. The largest is a drive-up site at Grand Itasca Clinic & Hospital in Grand Rapids. 

President and CEO Jean MacDonell said they’ve seen a rise in the number of cases — and in the number of people coming into get tested — in the last few weeks, coinciding with the reopening of school. She said the number of tests given has doubled to nearly 500 per week. 

MacDonell said the mass testing event will inevitably help calm anxiety for people wondering if they're infected. But she cautions that COVID-19 tests tell a limited story: They’ll tell a person if they have COVID-19 at that very moment. But they’re a snapshot in time. They can't tell people if they've already had the disease.

The key is to keep testing — and keeping barriers to testing low.

"You know, the thing that we worry about in health care, is just it's one point in time,” she said. “And if we're not offering that, you know, on an ongoing basis, we're really just looking at one single day out of many here."

A person wearing a hospital gown leans into a car.
A contractor for the Minnesota Department of Health talks to a person at a COVID-19 drive-thru testing event in Grand Rapids, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Health officials believe that by increasing access to testing, positive cases can be identified earlier. That in turn, identifies who needs to isolate and who else may be at risk to help slow the spread of cases through communities, where those most vulnerable to the virus could be at risk. 

Just over 900 people were tested at the Grand Rapids site Wednesday.

Free testing clinics are being offered the rest of the week in Pine City, Waseca and St. Paul. State health officials have said they will announce other test sites soon, using testing data to identify communities where the health risk is greatest. 

If you go: Community barrier-free testing 

You do not need to register or make an appointment ahead of time, but it is encouraged. Schedule an appointment online.

Testing is free, no insurance or ID is necessary. 

More sites will be announced over the next three weeks.


Pine City Armory

1305 Main St., Pine City, Minn. 

12-6 p.m. 

Waseca County Fairgrounds

409 8th Ave. NE, Waseca, Minn. 

12-6 p.m. 

Thursday and Friday

Mount Olivet Baptist Church

451 Central Ave. W., St. Paul 

2-6 p.m.

Correction (Sept. 24, 2020): Jean MacDonell’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.