HIBBING — A schedule on the wall is noted with handwritten numbers — 352, 278, 321, 232, 305 — outside the break room at the National Guard Armory in Hibbing.
Around it the National Guard members and medical staff on hand mill about the early preparations for the day cleaning tables and taking their place in the large room that’s marked by tables and signs. The snowfall outside created a classic winter scene on the Iron Range just two days before the Thanksgiving holiday.
It was a Tuesday, the last day for a week the Guard members, medical staff and health department employees would man this station. As the coronavirus has surged at record rates across the Range and St. Louis County, the armory in Hibbing is one of the sites central to the state’s mission of testing, tracing and isolating the virus.
A week earlier, on Nov. 18, the armory was turned into the Range’s first full-time COVID-19 testing location, set to be open until the end of January, with a capacity of 300 people a day, and as many as 350 daily tests to date. The numbers on the calendar in the armory represent the number of tests performed that day.
Jason Metsa, the former state representative for House 6B and Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation, is leading coordination of the Hibbing testing site. As the virus hit Minnesota in March and the state built its testing capacity to what it is today — averaging 50,000 daily tests with the possibility for 75,000 — state employees reshuffled their efforts and jobs to help fight it. Metsa was among those. With the sign off of IRRR Commissioner Mark Phillips, he took a reassignment to the Minnesota Department of Health to lead the facility’s efforts.
“We thought the IRRR was a good way to get it started,” Metsa said. “It’s a partnership we thought would elevate the usage. We know the region and that’s good for public trust.”
The testing site is pretty typical for what one looks like across the state and is one of 11 opened by the state in recent weeks that deployed about 100 members of the National Guard to help staff the site, manage and transport tests, among other duties. In Hibbing, they will reopen Tuesday and operate three to five days from noon to 6 p.m.
Pre-registrations go to the left, walk-ins to the right to meet another table of Guard members with iPads ready to start the process. They fill out the information and help test takers verify their information so medical information isn’t misdelivered.
The day for the staff and Guard volunteers starts a few hours before it opens, checking pre-registrant numbers to ensure they have enough tests, and if the numbers are low, blitzing social media that morning to remind people of the site.
“With all this being so new it’s overwhelming at times training this many people and cross training,” Metsa said.
After signing up, they join the line to wait for the medical staff. One person is called up and the medical staff calls the person up to the ‘X’ and, in full personal protective equipment, swab their nose — five circles around each nostril — before sending them on their way.
The type of nostril swab isn’t the “brain scrape” that many associate with COVID-19 testing. It only goes a half-inch into the nostril — a “tickler” as Metsa described.
In November, COVID-19 has been rising in the county and state at its fastest rates since the pandemic began in March. More than 1,000 people across Minnesota died from the virus this month alone and the state set new high marks for daily infections and death in November.
The Minnesota Department of Health on Saturday, reporting results from Thursday and Friday, recorded 9,040 new infections and 45 deaths. St. Louis County accounted for 290 new cases.
Metsa said the early testing results at the Hibbing location showed about 5 percent positivity rate — about 16 out of 342 — as the statewide rate has hovered in the double-digits for a few weeks. But precautions are still taken minute by minute. Guard members wear masks and sanitize every surface after it is touched. They’re asked to closely follow state and CDC guidelines aimed at curbing the virus in order to keep the operation in Hibbing running.
“We go in with the assumption that everyone has it — that all of us have it,” Metsa said. “Half the battle is keeping us healthy. If one person goes down, the entire operation can.”
Hibbing now represents the only state-run free testing site on the Range. The next closest is in Duluth and they hope the location will give residents another option in seeking a test. Before the armory opened, many would go to the hospital with their mild symptoms and take up room in the facility. Now, they can visit the Hibbing site and keep traffic down in emergency rooms and clinics at a time when they’re at or near capacity in the region.
Metsa said the next step is to reach out to businesses and other critical sectors of the Range economy to schedule a mass testing day for them, whether that be mines or grocery stores. One thing that makes that possible, he said, is the smooth partnerships among the state, St. Louis County and National Guard.
“Phenomenal partnerships,” he said. “We couldn’t be doing this without their leadership.”