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Broad-based COVID-19 testing coming next week to Willmar helps identify, limit community spread

The testing in response to the increased community spread is free and open to all, with or without symptoms, and no insurance or identification is needed.

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A health care worker holds a COVID-19 test tube at a testing site in Willmar. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune
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WILLMAR — A week after Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services put out a warning about an increase in individuals testing positive for COVID-19, the state Department of Health will bring one of its free testing clinics to Willmar in response to the rise of positive cases.

"Testing uncovers positive cases earlier, and helps us limit the spread of disease," Minnesota Department of Health State Incident Commander Elaine Eschenbacher wrote in an email.

Eschenbacher will be on-site in Willmar for the testing next week.

"The test results will provide important data about the degree of spread in local areas and help to guide efforts to combat COVID-19 and protect those who are most vulnerable to serious complications," she said.

The free COVID-19 testing is being offered from noon to 6 p.m. Oct. 6-8 at the Willmar Armory by the Minnesota Department of Health.

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Insurance and identification will not be required and the tests are free.

According to Eschenbacher, the information collected is kept confidential from the public, but positive cases will be reported to local health departments so that contact tracing can be done and those who are sick can get the medical care they need.

"Some people are hesitant because they've heard COVID tests are painful," Eschenbacher wrote. "The tests used in our community events involved a simple nasal swab that goes about 2 centimeters into each nostril. It is not the same as the deeper nasopharyngeal test that people find so uncomfortable."

The department is encouraging residents to take the test whether or not they show any symptoms.

"Many who contract COVID-19 may experience mild or even no symptoms, but some suffer life-threatening complications. All who contract the virus are contagious. Getting tested helps people know they if have contracted COVID-19 so they are informed and can protect those they are close to who might be most vulnerable to serious complications," Eschenbacher wrote. "This is a proven strategy for fighting spread of a virus like COVID-19."

The increased access to testing and identifying positive cases is a critical way to keep schools and the economy open, according to Eschenbacher.

The state Department of Health each week provides a 14-day case rate for use by school district officials in making their determination about what learning model to adopt, but that "broad community-level data alone does not directly determine a potential change to the learning model," Eschenbacher wrote.

"Instead, cases within the school community and what is happening in the schools themselves are the most important considerations."

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Eschenbacher wrote that school districts make their decisions in consultation with a support team that includes local public health, the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Department of Education.

The most recent case rate in Kandiyohi County is 17.35 per 10,000, for the period of Sept. 6 to Sept. 19. At that rate, the state recommends elementary students attend in-person classes and middle/high school students attend in hybrid.

Willmar Public Schools have been in that learning model since school opened. New London-Spicer Schools are currently in hybrid as well.

Switching from one model to another requires significant planning, wrote Eschenbacher.

"School districts have to balance the important benefits of in-person learning to the mental and emotional health of their students with the very real risk of COVID spread in a school environment," wrote Eschenbacher.

Testing next week will also be done at armories in St. Joseph, Fairmont, Inver Grove Heights, Ely and Cloquet, with the Minnesota National Guard providing logistical support.

A previous news release from the department said that this strategy will help increase the geographic balance of testing across Minnesota and help it respond where the health risk is greatest. Testing opportunities have been provided previously in Grand Rapids, Pine City, Waseca, Bloomington, Maplewood, Moorhead, Marshall, Thief River Falls and Bemidji.

People are encouraged to register in advance at https://www.primarybio.com/r/willmar for a testing time slot during the Willmar clinic. Those who are unable to sign up online or need interpretation can call 1-855-612-0677 for assistance.

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Mark Wasson has been a public safety reporter with Post Bulletin since May 2022. Previously, he worked as a general assignment reporter in the southwest metro and as a public safety reporter in Willmar, Minn. Readers can reach Mark at mwasson@postbulletin.com.
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