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MDH halts walk-in COVID tests at MSP Airport amid high demand

MDH tweeted Monday afternoon that the airport community testing site run in partnership with VAULT Health was also moving to appointments only.

MINNEAPOLIS — Since March of 2020, an at-cost COVID testing site run by Wandertest at the airport has honored both appointments and walk-ins. However, Monday was a different story. 

"Generally speaking, we recommend an appointment. If you have an appointment, we're going to make sure you get through in a reasonable amount of time and then we allow walk-ins as well," Wandertest Business Leader Mike Jones said. "Today is actually the first day we have cut off walk-ins because we have to make sure we can get through enough people."

Jones says he was expecting something like this could happen, especially given the omicron variant and people's gathering habits over the holidays.

"Really since Thanksgiving, testing has gone through the roof. We had about a 50% increase over Thanksgiving break, and it stayed steady for Christmas," Jones said. "It increased and it has continued to increase, demand has been through the roof for testing."

Wandertest wasn't alone in declining walk-ins either. 

The Minnesota Department of Health tweeted Monday afternoon that the airport community testing site run in partnership with VAULT Health was also moving to appointments only, at the request of airport personnel.

That led to frustration for dozens upon dozens of people seeking walk-up tests on Monday afternoon. 

"I need to be back at work, and I can't get a test done either. So, it is very frustrating," Kevin De Leeuw said. "Just gonna sit on my phone... and hopefully find an appointment at some point."

Saul Nunez shared those frustrations.

"Now, tomorrow, I'm gonna go back to work, and what if I have COVID? I'm going to risk people, I'm going to risk my families?" Nunez said. "If I don't get tested, don't find out what condition I am in now... it's gonna be dangerous." 

VAULT Health CEO Jason Feldman said it's not an issue of supplies.

"When everyone comes at once, it can become a real difficult challenge, so our supply chain - just to give everyone confidence - is fine," Feldman said. "We have plenty of supplies, test tubes, it's just the matter of number of humans beings in these sites and being able to run safe sites where people can come in and maintain some distancing so you don't get other people sick."

Feldman told Breaking The News that with the safe staffing issues forefront, the best way is to take advantage of the mail-in saliva test kits.

"As always is the case during the holidays, there are a couple of days during New Years when UPS doesn't ship. They've done a good job holding onto the volumes. We're working directly with UPS to make sure we're feeding all the volumes into the system as quickly and capably as they can handle it," Feldman explained. "Getting these tubes out to people in their homes, that's the best place to test by the way."

And in terms of increasing capacity for both companies?

"We staffed up significantly since before Thanksgiving. We'll probably do it a little bit more, to meet the demand of post-holiday January travel, but we're also adding one to two Wandertest sites not at the airport to allow people who don't want to go to the airport to get rapid tests," Jones said.

"Our best advice is to make sure you're getting to testing sites early...your best bet is to do an at-home test, at a safe place, and make sure you don't have to put yourself at risk, or worse, waste your time driving to a site that might already be at capacity," Feldman said.

There have also been talks of a daily cap of mail-in test kits. In response, VAULT Health sent us this statement:

"The daily cap is not new - we did something similar when the program first launched and the orders overwhelmed the UPS system. We've also done [this] a few other times over the past year when there were shipping issues (typically around holidays when delivery service is impacted).

We put in place these temporary daily caps for all of our state programs for the NYE holiday weekend, based on the extremely high demand and reduced shipping hours with UPS. For 1/1 and 1/2 the daily cap was 1,500 tests each day - UPS wasn't shipping these days anyway, so we wanted to avoid having a backlog of tests to ship today.

These daily caps are ONLY for the at-home program, since it's tied directly to shipping. The in-person testing sites will continue to test as many people as they can get through the sites each day, with many now having expanded operating hours.

Normal operations for the at-home program resumed today, which includes a daily cap of 6,000 tests. Average orders for tests have been anywhere from 2,000 - 4,000 over the past few weeks."

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