WILLMAR — In a bold response to combating COVID-19, Bethesda will begin on-site and on-demand weekly testing of all employees, residents and tenants throughout the organization’s skilled nursing and congregate housing facilities in Willmar and Olivia.

The goal is to start testing all employees Friday.

Starting next week, tests will be available for all tenants and residents.

In all, Bethesda could test 1,000 individuals every week. They will cover any out-of-pocket costs associated with the testing.

“At this point, Bethesda will be the only senior care provider within the state with access to weekly proactive and comprehensive testing,” said Michelle Haefner, Bethesda president and chief executive officer, in a news release Wednesday afternoon.

“This is a significant undertaking. We are prepared to test nearly 1,000 individuals on a weekly basis,” she said.

The tests will be conducted for individuals regardless of symptom presentation and will help the facility — which is one of the largest skilled nursing facilities in Minnesota and a major employer in Willmar and Olivia — proactively prevent asymptomatic spread of COVID-19, according to Haefner.

“As access to COVID-19 testing continues to remain particularly challenging for long-term care and senior housing settings, we made the decision to pursue our own solution for all those who call Bethesda home and entrust their work lives with us,” she said. " ... These actions fill a significant gap of asymptotic testing that is currently not accessible and remains a concern for settings such as ours."

The great majority of COVID-19 deaths in Minnesota have been associated with long-term care, according to state Department of Health data.

So far during the pandemic, Bethesda has reported that four employees have tested positive for coronavirus. One resident died from COVID-19.

The tests will be administered on-site by specially trained Bethesda nurses and then sent to a private, off-site testing laboratory with which Bethesda has independently contracted.

Test results are expected in 48 to 72 hours.

The private lab will report all test results to the Minnesota Department of Health.

If a test comes back positive, the person will be notified promptly and contact tracing will begin as it currently does, according to the news release.

Bethesda team members, residents, tenants and clients who might have experienced potential exposure will continue to be notified as well.

While broad-scale testing of asymptomatic carriers will result in increased case confirmation, Haefner said Bethesda believes it is the “best defense against this unseen enemy.”

She said the test results will “equip our teams to proactively prevent asymptomatic spread, saving the health and well-being for all at Bethesda while creating a positive impact for our local communities.”

The on-side testing will be identical to what people experience at a local clinic or hospital, yet remain readily available to all asymptomatic individuals connected to the organization, the release states.

Employees who report symptoms, as part of the staff screening process already in place, would continue to follow the regular procedures for symptomatic employees: They would not report to work and would instead be directed to their local COVID-19 testing facility.

Symptomatic residents and tenants will be evaluated on an individualized basis for the safest testing.

The nonprofit Bethesda provides a full range of care to seniors in west central Minnesota. It currently has 248 skilled nursing beds and provides 182 senior housing apartments, with 50 in Olivia, and 132 in Willmar.

It currently has about 530 employees.