They call themselves the “Swab Squad”: a group of trained M Health Fairview medical professionals deployed to long-term care facilities to both swab and collect COVID-19 samples for testing.
Due to age or complex medical conditions, residents of long-term care facilities across Minnesota are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. So far, 21 percent of all Minnesota COVID-19 cases have occurred in congregate living settings like nursing homes or assisted living facilities. Several such locations have reported outbreaks involving dozens of cases.
Despite the need, testing at many of these facilities remains challenging. Often, staff members at these sites do not have the personal protective equipment (PPE) or training necessary to perform a COVID-19 test and send it into a laboratory.
Enter the eight-person Swab Squad.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, this specialized group of M Health Fairview mobile lab care technicians had been going into long-term care homes for many years as phlebotomists, collecting routine blood samples. Now, they have been mobilized to administer COVID-19 tests and bring them back to laboratories for testing. The Swab Squad is designed to fill the void for those sites that need testing and don’t have the resources available to provide it, with vulnerable residents who must remain isolated to avoid exposure to the general population and stay safe.
“Helping to identify what is going on is very important, so that we can then get the proper treatment and care for that entire community,” said Lab Manager Melissa Rist, a member of the Swab Squad.
The squad’s deployment aligns with statewide plans to protect long-term care facility residents and workers. Last week, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz unveiled a five-point plan to bolster infection prevention at those sites. He identified expanded testing, screening, and monitoring as a top priority.
“We know COVID-19 hits our vulnerable communities hardest,” said Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan. “This includes in our long-term care facilities – both residents and staff. This plan will help keep this virus at bay and protect the health and well-being of Minnesota’s most vulnerable residents.”
The idea to provide mobile COVID-19 testing for the seniors started with the techs in the Swab Squad – all of whom have strong, meaningful relationships with their patients through their previous work. The Swab Squad, based at M Health Fairview St. Joseph’s Hospital, follows the same PPE guidelines as everyone else who interacts with potential COVID-19 patients; they wear a mask, face shield, gloves, and an isolation gown or resistant lab coat when conducting tests.
“I think when you make a decision to work in healthcare, you kind of take that oath that you're going to be there for people when they need you,” Rist said. “And they need us right now.”