The Wadena Armory COVID-19 testing site opened on Nov. 17 as one of 11 sites across Minnesota that the state launched to provide “no-barrier” testing. There has been a “steady stream" of people with approximately 50-150 people a day for Dec. 1-3 and 200-300 people a day for Nov. 17-19 and 23-24, according to Wadena site logistics lead Jackie Awes and Minnesota Department of Health state incident commander Eddie Haubrich. The site is equipped for testing 300 people a day.

The site is staffed by Minnesota National Guard members and state contracted nurses with free testing available throughout December and January. People can choose to be tested with or without symptoms and can walk-in or make an appointment online or over the phone.

“It’s all about being a barrier-free, touch-free experience for everybody so that they’re not spreading possible (virus droplets),” Awes said.

Across the state, approximately 100 members of the National Guard are deployed to provide support with logistics, registration, check-in and check-out, supply management and transportation, according to an MDH news release.

Wadena was chosen by MDH as one of these access points to provide “even coverage” geographically across the state so people do not have to drive long distances for a test, according to Haubrich. Wadena is a central location. Wadena County Public Health nursing supervisor Erica Keppers added that other counties have also wondered why Wadena was chosen, and that other counties might be closer to testing in St. Cloud or Brainerd.

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The availability of the Armory space was another benefit since places like schools and churches are often used for other community aspects, as Haubrich said.

“We are just very, very fortunate to have the testing site coming here,” Keppers said.

With the testing at the Armory, Keppers said COVID-19 tests at Tri-County Health Care and Lakewood Health System have decreased, providing a much needed “breather” for staff members.

"From a staffing standpoint, with less people coming in for Ready Care visits or calling in to schedule a test, it has allowed TCHC to allocate staff to other critical need areas," Tri-County director of quality/compliance and incident commander Tammy Suchy said in an email.

At Lakewood, patients with COVID-19 related illness remain "consistent" in the emergency department, COVID-19 testing is "stable" at the Browerville clinic and there has been a 38% decrease in testing at the Staples clinic since Nov. 17, according to communications coordinator Amber Houselog.

"The testing at the Wadena Armory has helped improve access to testing, which, in turn, has assisted our local healthcare organizations in being able to continue caring for patients," Houselog said in an email.

People are encouraged to return for another test in the future for any reason or if they would like routine testing. Awes and Haubrich said this can provide peace of mind for people.

“We absolutely want this to be a place where people see this as a semi-permanent part of the community and if they want to get tested on a regular basis, weekly or what not, they absolutely can and should do that if they feel comfortable,” Haubrich said. “We will have tests available.”

Why is it important to get tested?

“It’s important to get testing because not everybody with COVID has symptoms so you don’t know if you are spreading it unknowingly,” Keppers said.

She said many cases of COVID-19 start with people who aren’t experiencing symptoms. Then since people aren’t having symptoms they might gather with a small number of family members. But then a symptom like loss of taste or smell appears and the virus could have been spread unknowingly. People can spread virus droplets (be infectious) 48 hours prior to having symptoms, as Keppers said.

Wadena County Public Health also receives “lots” of calls from the community, teachers, students and parents about situations like this. Awes noted how her son tested positive but never had any symptoms, which is known as asymptomatic.

“Testing allows for identification and then you can further slow the spread when people know because although we’re always supposed to be careful and we’re always supposed to be conscientious … having that extra degree of knowledge and caution is certainly helpful,” Haubrich said.

More information

The Wadena Armory has free COVID-19 testing from noon-6 p.m. on select dates through December and January. Testing is available for people with or without symptoms. Walk-ins are accepted; you can also make an appointment at www.primarybio.com/r/wadena or call 1-855-612-0677.

The state also offers free at-home saliva tests. You can read more about the tests and order a test at www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/coronavirus/testsites/athome.html.

COVID-19 information

Editor’s note: Wadena County Public Health nursing supervisor Erica Keppers was voluntarily tested for COVID-19 to increase public awareness about the free testing available.