Volunteers at a state-sponsored COVID-19 testing site at Madelia High School. Credit: Juan Pablo Higuera Forero | HACER-MN

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The Minnesota Department of Health is organizing COVID-19 testing events across the state that offer residents a chance to be tested without worrying about immigration status or a lack of health insurance.  

The one- or two-day “no-barriers” events, which have attracted up to 1,000 people at each site, are currently taking place in St. James, Austin and Madelia in southern Minnesota, after having been held in the Twin Cities, Duluth, Moorhead, St. James and Faribault.

State officials have been working with local public health officials to pinpoint locations, and with advocacy groups to get the word of a testing event out into the community. They say it’s important for everyone in Minnesota that anyone can get tested, even if they are undocumented and lack health insurance. 

“Those are all things that we have been trying to take into account as we create these community testing sites, to try to make sure there are no barriers to testing,” said Kou Thao, the director of the Center for Health Equity at the Minnesota Department of Health.

In total, the state lists 240 testing facilities of all kinds in Minnesota at facilities including fairgrounds and schools. The state program constitutes a small percentage of those testing sites. 

Minnesota originally sponsored six testing sites across the state on Memorial Day weekend in collaboration with the National Guard. Four testing sites remained open through June to provide people who had attended the large protests against the killing of George Floyd a safe place to get tested.

Since then, the state has continued organizing events based on the needs of specific communities. Local public health officials report COVID-19 positivity rates to the Department of Health, which then determines whether a testing site should be put up in that area.

Each testing site is a bit different — you can drive through some, but others are walk-ups. Thao encouraged people to book an appointment to avoid wait times, but staff also is offering in-person registration. At the testing station, a medical professional will use a short nasal swab to conduct the non-invasive test. The process generally takes less than 10 minutes, and results are available two or three days.

For those who test positive, the provider who conducted the test will advise them of the next steps they should take, depending on the severity of their symptoms. 

“We don’t ask any questions around citizenship or documentation so we don’t know whether folks were undocumented or immigrants,” Thao said. “But based on the data that we do have we could make projections.”

The state, which now has had about 40,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, does not track cases by immigration status, but data is available by race and ethnicity. The Department of Health reported that Hispanics, for instance, make up 5% of the total population but 21% of the total number of COVID-19 cases. 

“When test sites are sending us the data, it does not come with very detailed information on race and ethnicity,” Thao said. “Historically, it has been very difficult to track testing data.”

To make sure they are administering tests to communities disproportionately affected by the virus, Thao said the Department of Health works closely with community organizations.

Rodolfo Gutierrez, the executive director of HACER-MN, an advocacy and research group, has been involved in promoting testing facilities in St. James, where about 800 people received tests in a town of 2,000.

HACER-MN has been working closely with the Department of Health to reach out to Latino communities to learn how to better serve them during the pandemic. Gutierrez raised concerns that people in the Latino community were not aware that the state-sponsored testing sites do not require insurance. HACER-MN stepped in to address those concerns.

“So many people are really pleased, and they were also surprised that MDH was offering these for free,” Gutierrez said.

In Minnesota, a total of 685,247 COVID-19 tests have been completed since the end of March. Minnesota’s CARES Act requires COVID-19 tests to be covered by insurance companies. Fees for testing and diagnosis of COVID-19 is covered by the state for uninsured Minnesotans.

“It’s important, not only for Minnesota’s immigrant and refugee communities, but also for everybody in Minnesota, to be able to have access to testing, to not have costs be a barrier,” Thao said.

Thao added that the test is just one, albeit an important, piece of the bigger picture. Once someone receives a test, only then can they truly know what their next steps are.

A full list of testing locations across the state can be found on the state government’s website.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.