More than 200,000 COVID tests administered at DECC community testing site
The testing site, which opened in September 2020, closed for good Saturday at 4 p.m. It was the longest-running COVID-19 testing site in Minnesota.
DULUTH — In the 28 months the state-designated COVID-19 testing site functioned at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, 212,663 tests were administered, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. The site, which opened Sept. 22, 2020, closed for good Saturday afternoon.
The busiest month for testing was November 2020, when an average of 1,151 tests were administered each day — 24,529 total. The second-busiest month was January 2022, when an average of 763 tests were administered daily. December 2020 and November and December 2021 were also in the top five busiest months for the site.
Normally set up in Paulucci Hall at the DECC, the community testing site was temporarily moved to Pioneer Hall to be able to better meet the high demand. Peter Hannegraf, site manager, said Pioneer Hall could fit more than double the amount of tables they had in Paulucci Hall.
"And we needed every one of them," Hannegraf said. "The demand was so insane. Ample space was a huge issue."
The DECC was the first and longest-running community COVID-19 testing site in Minnesota, said Garry Bowman, Minnesota Department of Health public information officer. When it first opened in 2020, COVID-19 tests were not available anywhere else, and neither were vaccines.
"Back then — it might seem like a while ago — but think about the panic and anxiety," Hannegraf said. "It was so uncertain and there wasn't a vaccine out. This was the only place to go. You couldn't order home tests, you couldn't get them at Walgreens, so this was really the only place. It was a scary time."
The testing site, which was funded by the state of Minnesota, was run by Vault Health. PCR saliva tests, rapid antigen tests and take-home tests were available there. Hannegraf said once the rapid tests were offered, they became the most popular option for many people because they would know if they were infected with the coronavirus within about 15 minutes.
The PCR tests, which are more accurate, take a day or two to yield results. A courier would arrive at the site every evening to take the tests and drive them to Oakdale, Minnesota, to be processed. More recently, the tests were flown to Massachusetts every night, but people still received their results the next day.
The DECC was also a test-to-treat site, where eligible people who received a positive COVID-19 test could receive medication to help cure their infection while on-site for the test.
Lucie Amundsen, DECC communications director, said their website page with testing information was one of their most-viewed pages, and the DECC staff was happy to be part of the momentum to guide people in the best ways and times to access the testing site.
"Financially, it was great for the DECC, just as it was for many convention centers around the state," Amundsen said. "It gave us the opportunity to really fulfill the community role that we're in as this regional center."
Parking at the DECC was free to people receiving testing to limit barriers. The tests were also free to everyone, regardless of state citizenship.
Hannegraf said he saw people from nearly every state over the last two years. Many people got tested before or during traveling, especially Canadians who needed negative tests to cross the border. He said people from all over the Northland frequented the site, including from the Iron Range and Wisconsin.
The DECC testing site had 15 employees at the peak of its demand, but was down to five employees at the time of its close.
"The people that we've dealt with and worked with have just been so great," Hannegraf said. "It's good to see people come together. We all worked together hard on it and I've always appreciated that."
Hannegraf said traffic was noticeably slower in the past few months. On its second-to-last day of being open, the hall stood empty, except for the five present staff, as the noon hour approached. The lunch hour once was one of the site's busiest times, along with before-and-after work hours. Since September, the site averaged fewer than 50 tests a day.
Hannegraf attributed this decrease in volume partially to the accessibility of tests now — at-home tests can be ordered online or bought at retail stores and pharmacies, and doctors offices can process tests more easily now — and to a change in perception of COVID-19 from 2020 to 2023. Many people are no longer as cautious about testing for a variety of reasons, including vaccination.
Vault Health was also the host of many of Minnesota's vaccine clinics at the DECC, especially in 2021. They administered a total of 19,500 tests at Fitzgerald Hall, which was among the first places to open when the state received its first allocations of the COVID-19 vaccine in February 2021.
"I'm not a very sentimental person, but I was like, 'We are doing something good here,'" Hannegraf said of the vaccinations. "It was a rewarding feeling."
The COVID-19 testing site was visited by Gov. Tim Walz in October 2021, during the rise of the delta variant, as he commended the work the staff did there and announced plans to expand testing around the state.
"All of us at the DECC greatly admire these people who have been running the COVID testing site," Amundsen said. "When you think of frontline workers, these people were tip-of-the-spear at the time when there were no vaccines and a lot less information about this virus, and they showed up every day and were here to meet the needs of the community. We will miss these people. They really have come to feel like our coworkers and not just like a conference guest."
Any leftover tests at the DECC will be returned to the state. Minnesotans can order at-home COVID-19 tests online at mn.gov/covid19/get-tested.