By Caroline Cummings

MAPLEWOOD, Minn. (WCCO) — Minnesota officials on Tuesday announced three new COVID-19 testing sites as demand soars, but availability is likely to remain stretched in the coming weeks as the Omicron variant spreads rampantly.

“We come into this with more capacity to adjust and to flex than most states, but in all candor things are going to be tight for a few weeks,” said State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm during a news conference.

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Gov. Tim Walz said three new community testing sites operated by the Minnesota Department of Health in Anoka, Cottage Grove and North Branch should be operational by next week. His office is also directing 1.8 million rapid tests to schools and 150,000 more of them to reach diverse communities through local organizations.

“That should alleviate some of it, but it is still going to be hard and I think Commissioner Malcolm and her team are doing everything they can, but we do need to be realistic,” Walz said. “We’re going to see more people requesting tests than at any time during the pandemic.”

And the demand isn’t just in Minnesota—it’s everywhere, as Omicron has quickly become the most dominant strain in the United States.

Walz said the moment feels reminiscent of early 2020, when Minnesota was “competing against other states and the federal government” for supplies.

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Delays could persist, he said, while promising “structural changes.” In addition to the new testing sites and rapid test shipments, he added that the state is looking at ways to make long lines move faster by sending Minnesotans texts of rapid results instead of waiting 20 minutes there for the status of their test.

But Malcolm warned the worst of the surge here hasn’t yet arrived. The state’s models show the peak could be a few weeks off in late January and early February.

“What we’re seeing in other states, other cities, other countries is the speed with which the growth curve literally goes vertical,” Malcolm said. “We think we’re just at the beginning of that here in Minnesota.”

The Minnesota National Guard has 14 missions underway to help long-term care facilities struggling to keep adequate staffing. And Malcolm said the health department is still waiting on official CDC guidance on its new five-day COVID isolation rules before formally updating its recommendations.

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Caroline Cummings