Minnesota National Guard helping with expanded COVID testing

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The Minnesota National Guard is preparing for several new missions in the battle against COVID-19.

"We are really multi-faceted and that’s the thing that’s really great about the National Guard," said Col. Scott Rohweder, the Minnesota National Guard’s director of operations.

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS was allowed into the Joint Operations Center near the Minnesota State Capitol, which serves as the Minnesota National Guard’s command hub for communication and decision-making.

"In the last 18 months, we’ve provided a lot of support to the state," Rohweder said.

The Guard’s new "active mission" is to help the state with a new community rapid testing program, announced by Gov. Tim Walz on Friday.

Walz said the state will launch six new testing sites this week that can give COVID-19 test results within minutes. The governor also put the Minnesota National Guard on standby to help with concerns surrounding hospital capacity, which continues to be an issue for both ICU and non-ICU beds throughout the state.

State data shows only 1.7% of ICU beds in the metro are currently available.

"Some of this support they’re looking for now is due to overflow from hospitals," Rohweder said.

The governor said hospitals typically send patients who need lower-level care to long-term care facilities but those facilities currently don’t have any capacity. That means patients who would normally be transferred to other care facilities are taking up critical space in hospitals.

The state is working with medical staffing agencies to try to boost operations at long-term care facilities but if they need extra support, they will tap the Minnesota National Guard.

"We trained up to about 480 service members, Army and Air National Guard, to be certified temporary nurse’s aides," Rohweder explained.

Hospital leaders in the metro noted capacity concerns aren’t just related to COVID-19, saying they are seeing a surge in other respiratory viruses and sicknesses as well, at a time when they already have "critical staffing shortages."

The governor hasn’t yet given an official order for the Minnesota National Guard to start staffing long-term care facilities.