Temporary trailers at Minneapolis site will house bodies. Live ones.

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Starting next month, once the elaborate complex of trailers are installed beneath the former Milwaukee Road train shed, federal medical personnel will begin measuring the health of Hennepin County residents.

It was an understandable misunderstanding.

The list of planning applications made to the city of Minneapolis included a request to put four temporary trailers in a parking lot next to The Depot on Washington Avenue South for something called a Medical Examination Center. 

A Medical Examination Center? Might this have to do with recent reports of overcrowding at the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s office? Could it be a plan to create more morgue space? Thanks to The Depot’s skating rink, there’s already ice-making equipment on site, after all.

The answer is interesting, just not that interesting. Though similar in name, the “Medical Examination Center” and the “Medical Examiner’s Office” are as different as night and day. Well, life and death, anyway.

Starting next month, once the elaborate complex of trailers is installed beneath the former Milwaukee Road train shed, federal medical personnel will begin measuring the health of Hennepin County residents. Hence the need for a Medical Examination Center. 

It’s all part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a service of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, and taken since 1960 to gather data on the overall health of Americans. After sending an introductory letter to residents in 15 randomly selected areas of the county, surveyors fan out to conduct in-person interviews. Some of those interviewed are then asked to head to the trailers for testing: body measurements, blood tests, urine samples, hearing tests, lung tests, dental exams.

So these aren’t just ordinary trailers. They include labs for the taking and analysis of those samples, a dental office, examination rooms and rooms to take hearing and lung tests and to conduct body measurements like height, weight and bone density.

Participants are compensated and receive reports on the examinations. If a health issue is found, the staff makes referrals to local health providers. “It’s good stuff,” Hennepin County Public Health Director Susan Palchick said of the data collected by the survey. “It’s used quite a bit in public health.”

It is from the collection of this data that the federal government estimates the prevalence of public health problems, which are used to form federal health policies and programs. The data is also used by health researchers and has been used to identify previously unknown conditions, such as the presence of lead in children or the increase in diabetes. The body measurements of children were used to create the growth charts used by pediatricians.

Hennepin County will be one of 15 counties in the United States surveyed this year. More than 5,000 people will be examined across the country. Palchick said the program in Hennepin County will conduct 809 home interviews and to do physical exams and testing on 347 residents. The last time they survey team was in the county was 2003.

“They have the system down pat,” Palchick said. “They’re here for a relatively short amount of time.” According to the request for permits, the survey team will be in those trailers between April 13 and June 10.

The city approved the application with a few caveats. Don’t alter the exterior of the Milwaukee Road Depot without getting approval from the Heritage Preservation Commission and make sure the use isn’t “detrimental to the public health, safety and warfare of the general public.”

Hopefully they meant welfare.

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