Dakota County officials are spearheading an effort to test all residents of congregate care facilities in the county for COVID-19, including those in group homes and adult foster care, with up to $1 million in federal CARES Act funding.

The County Board’s “first and highest priority” is to test all vulnerable adults in residential settings, rather than just older adults living in nursing homes and assisted-living centers, said Commissioner Mary Liz Holberg at an online news conference last week.

“These residents are among the most vulnerable in the county,” she said. “We believe this will truly save lives.”

Dakota County will work with Stillwater-based Bluestone Physician Services, which specializes in providing medical care to people in group homes and assisted-living centers. Bluestone will contact each of the county’s congregate care facilities, explain the free service and ask if they want to participate.

County officials said they believe the partnership is the most comprehensive testing initiative undertaken by a Minnesota county because it specifically targets vulnerable adults.

“We’re breaking new ground here,” said Evan Henspeter, the county’s director of social services.

Funding will come from $52 million that Dakota County officials learned last week they will get when Gov. Tim Walz disburses $841 million from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to local governments.

Nineteen congregate care facilities in Dakota County — defined as housing for older adults or disabled people that provides 24-hour care and support services — have seen COVID-19 cases, and 68 residents have died in those facilities from the virus, officials said. While residents in such settings make up 10% of the county’s coronavirus cases, they comprise 76% of the deaths.

The county’s 540 congregate care centers include 245 corporate foster care sites, 150 assisted-living facilities, 95 family adult foster care, 10 nursing homes and five residential treatment centers for chemical dependency.

Dakota County has arranged for testing at several facilities provided by the National Guard, in coordination with the state Department of Health, and some sites have coordinated testing through health care systems. But until now the county hasn’t contracted with a provider like Bluestone.

Vulnerable adults in foster care or group homes may be overlooked in the state’s testing efforts because state officials have prioritized testing at facilities with senior citizens, the highest-risk group, Henspeter said. “We want to augment what the state is able to do,” he said.

So far, places contacted about testing have been enthusiastic about participation, Henspeter said. Ongoing COVID-19 education also will be part of the program, he said.

Dan Stewart, legal director of the Minnesota Disability Law Center, said he’s seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases among people living in group homes and other settings with many disabled residents. “We’re concerned, first of all, that this population is not being tested enough,” he said. “We encourage more testing.”

The effort will not just offer testing. It also will assist people who test positive while they’re in isolation and help them develop return-to-work plans, said Sarah Keenan, Bluestone chief clinical officer.

Keenan said Bluestone already has been testing for COVID-19 at congregate care facilities and has found “quite a high incidence” of staff members who test positive but are asymptomatic. Testing staffers at those sites is also part of Dakota County’s plan.

Hennepin County, the state’s most populous, is focused on coronavirus testing in homeless shelters and encampments, nursing homes and assisted-living centers. In coming weeks, the county will start testing specified groups at sites such as churches and community organizations, said Lori Imsdahl, spokeswoman for Hennepin County Public Health. Hennepin County isn’t testing at group homes, she said, though officials are exploring ways to do so.