The 'Swab Squad' on the front lines of the pandemic

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Their official title is 'Laboratory Mobile Health Group.'

But they call themselves, M Health Fairview 'Swab Squad.'

"This is what we signed up for. This is our livelihood," says lead mobile care tech Vickie Kurschner. "We've been in health care all our lives." 

For three weeks now, this team has been facing a new professional challenge. 

The group of eight mobile care technicians is continually on the road, working out of their cars, to collect samples for COVID-19 testing. 

They showed 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS their tool of the trade: a nasal swab kit. 

"This is what actually gets tested. The swab is left inside of there," a team member explains, pointing to a small sealed tube. "It gets mixed up and then they do the processing to test the liquid."

This roving band of health care workers collects swab kits from as many as 700 nursing homes. 

Some are considered COVID-19 hotspots. 

"It's really hard to see our most vulnerable people in those homes, that it's attacking them," says Tonya Heller, a lab care technician. "To me, it's very saddening." 

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Partnering with the state health department lab, these samples will be tested for active infections at two labs at the University of Minnesota.  

First, to see if seniors are positive, but also to track patterns of new cases. 

"So it's active infection testing, to see if you actually have the virus," client services manager Melissa Rist explains. "It'll give us a lot of information whether there are asymptomatic carriers going around, the length of incubation, things like that." 

The team won't say how many samples they've collected. 

But they note by their second week in action, their test collections increased 100%. 

By the following week, collections increased 350%. 

"I don't think anybody could dream this, it's unusual," Kurschner says, about the pandemic. "We're all scared in certain ways. But it's part of our life right now." 

For many on this squad, this is a very personal, emotional mission. 

They've known some of these senior patients for years. 

Even before the pandemic, team members were collecting swabs for ailments like the flu. 

The most difficult part, they say, is a sad truth: that some patients might not be there the next time they visit. 

"Here we are trying to make sure that these residents are safe and people are wearing the PPE," Heller says. "When we go in to test them, we hope they're all negative, but we know obviously, some come back positive." 

But squad members say they are passionate about their role in fighting COVID-19. 

And the hope that a simple swab could save lives, and help to hunt down a deadly virus.

"The homes that don't have the resources to be able to collect the specimens themselves, that's where we come in," Rist says. "These are uncertain times right now. If we can help protect these communities, that's what we want to do."