COVID response turns another corner: MN test to treat sites are no more

Signage notes the impending closure at Covid-19 test center
Signage notes the impending closure at the Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 testing site at MSP Airport in Bloomington, Minnesota on Jan. 27.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

Updated: 1:30 p.m.

The Minnesota Department of Health has closed COVID testing sites that people once visited in droves. But the agency said use of the sites at places like St. Paul's Midway neighborhood and Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport had dropped. But that’s left some Minnesotans wondering where they’ll get a COVID test now.

”It's just a natural transition away from our emergency response work to the regular operations of health care and public health,” said Chris Elvrum, the state health department’s COVID operations manager. “People can still find tests, it just won't be at our state sites.”

On one of its last days of operation, the COVID test-to-treat site at MSP was quiet, save for the whirring of air purifiers.

A person sanitizes a station
Charles Allen sanitizes a station at the Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 testing site at MSP Airport in Bloomington, Minnesota on Friday. Allen, and the rest of the staff at the testing site, face unemployment after its closure.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

The testing site, located in Terminal 1 of the airport, had its own free parking area just outside the entrance.

Visitors waited in their vehicles for results from either a rapid or PCR test. After testing positive, they had the option to meet with a health professional and potentially get drugs to treat the virus, like Paxlovid.

Nancy Pellowski Wiger said she’d visited the site several times with her two children.

“It's just been really convenient, super easy to get to, to answer all of our questions, which is fantastic,” Pellowski Wiger said, adding that it was good place to test her kids, starting when they were 6 and 8 years old.

A family poses for a portrait
Nancy Pellowski Wiger poses for a portrait with her children Olivia and Soren after taking a test.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

Months ago, the testing site used to be crowded with visitors. Some getting tested before boarding their plane, others just dropping by before getting on with their day.

A year ago, the site performed an average of 1,456 COVID tests per day, according to state data. But attendance dropped off to around 100 each day, leading the Minnesota Department of Health to close the sites.

That decision has left those who regularly visited the MSP testing site concerned about where they and others will be able to get tested now.

When the pandemic first started, Julia Brokaw, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota said she was always scrambling to find a PCR test. And then, as she took care of her late father, who was immunocompromised while undergoing cancer treatment, testing became even more important.

A person sanitizes stations at the Covid-19 test center
Charles Allen sanitizes the MSP Airport COVID-19 testing site before its closure.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

“I'm scared for everybody who relies on these testing centers, who may not have insurance, who might be high risk and need to get access to Paxlovid and a practitioner,” Brokaw said

MDH’s Elvrum said other options were considered, like reducing locations or hours. But that they just weren’t seeing the attendance to make continued operation work.

But Brokaw said she doesn’t feel like that’s a good enough reason to shut them down.

“Because it matters who is coming in and who requires the service and who is most vulnerable,” she said. “I think it's worth keeping them open as long as it matters to one person and it does.”

While there are more options now to access a COVID test than there were years ago, many people have shifted to at-home rapid testing. Meanwhile, accessing PCR tests isn’t always a straightforward process.

Stores like Walgreens and CVS offer no-cost PCR testing, you may have to meet certain criteria to get it, such as having COVID symptoms.

Nurse practitioner Kelly Boie directs a patient
Nurse practitioner Kelly Boie directs a patient at the Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 testing site at the airport.
Stephen Maturen for MPR News

The state also maintains a list of other providers who offer COVID testing, but some have limited hours, require appointments or only provide certain kinds of tests, like only nasal swab PCRs instead of saliva PCR testing.

Health officials continue to staff the department’s COVID public hotline, 1-833-431-2053, to call if you have been charged for a test. The hotline is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The hours are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday.

Nurse practitioner Kelly Boie said she’s heard from people who’ve been both angry and sad about the testing site at the airport closing.

“People have relied on this. And now they're gonna have to find other ways or other places to get tested,” Boie said. “Change is … always tough.”

It’s also a change for the people who work there, many of whom are now looking for new jobs since the location has shut down. 

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