Gov. Tim Walz unveiled his much-anticipated “moon shot” testing strategy on Wednesday so that Minnesota can fully track the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused 179 deaths in the state, and diagnose all cases of people with the infectious illness.
Standing with leaders of Mayo Clinic, the University of Minnesota and HealthPartners, the governor said that this $36 million agreement will result in the most aggressive COVID-19 testing program in the nation and allow for the diagnostic testing of as many as 20,000 samples per day — beyond the 5,000 per day that he had said was necessary.
“We are smothering this issue of testing with talent, I would argue, better than any place on this planet,” he said.
While it might take a couple of weeks to reach full capacity, the state already has the ability to test as many as 8,000 samples per day now that its public, private and hospital labs are coordinating efforts, said Jan Malcolm, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health.
The department was set to issue a health action alert to all doctors in the state, lifting previous testing restrictions and telling them to at least collect the nasal or throat swab samples for testing from patients with suspicious symptoms.
“We’re standing behind the health care systems to assure if they collect those samples, they’ll get processed,” said Malcolm, adding that the department is telling all doctors to “ ‘test every symptomatic person.’ That is your job as the health care system. Our job is to build this system to make it happen.”
The testing news came on a somber day for Minnesota, which set single-day records with 19 deaths and 154 newly lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19. The toll has been particularly harsh for long-term care facility residents, who make up 129 of the state’s 179 deaths. The total positive COVID-19 case count of 2,721 so far is based on 49,344 tests by the state public health lab and private labs such as Mayo.
State officials also continued to assess the damage of an outbreak in Nobles County that has caused 126 confirmed infections and one death, and resulted in the temporary shutdown of the JBS pork plant in Worthington. Interviews have found most of the people infected in that county are plant workers or their relatives.
Increased testing will no doubt find many more cases, given that only an estimated 5% of the state has been infected by the coronavirus so far, said Michael Osterholm, director of the U’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
“It’s very important they understand we are in the very first innings of this game,” he said. “This is not going to get over with anytime soon … This virus will not rest until at least 60 to 70% of our population has either been infected, and then hopefully developed immunity, or we have a vaccine.”
Minnesota tried an open-ended testing approach in early March after the first cases were detected in the state, and President Donald Trump issued assurances that anyone in the U.S. who needed a test could receive one. Supplies at the state public health lab quickly ran out, though, of everything from chemical reagents needed for the test, to cotton swabs to collect nasal or throat samples for patients, to the liquid used to transport the samples to labs.
As a result, priority for the limited testing has been given to health care providers, patients already in the hospital and people living in long-term care facilities.
“You can get the care today, but you can’t get the tests today, and that’s what’s going to change,” said Andrea Walsh, president and CEO of HealthPartners.
Walz said he would hold himself personally accountable for any future backlogs in testing for people who need it. He also planned for additional testing data to be publicized on the state’s COVID-19 web page.
Minnesota’s ability to ramp up capacity is based largely on research and know-how at Mayo’s large national reference laboratory, which has already conducted 120,000 molecular diagnostic tests for COVID-19 nationwide, and at the U.
Research at the U with the COVID-19 virus allowed for the development of an original testing platform that won’t be as affected by the shortages of supplies for commercial testing kits, said Dr. Jakub Tolar, dean of the U School of Medicine and vice president of clinical affairs.
“The anxiety that comes with not knowing whether you are positive or not is as contagious as the virus itself,” Tolar said, “and it’s one of the phenomenal gestures in this that we can alleviate that anxiety with science.”
Mayo and the U also have developed capacity for thousands of daily antibody tests from blood serum to determine who has already recovered from COVID-19 infections.
Increased testing is the centerpiece of Walz’s plan to trace close contacts of infected people and to quarantine them before they suffer the illness and potentially spread the virus to others. The governor said this is a necessary first step toward reopening more businesses and other public spaces. Schools and many businesses are closed under an executive stay-at-home order, which Walz has extended to at least May 4.
The stay-at-home order was put in place largely to buy time for hospitals to add beds, staff and equipment to handle an expected surge of COVID-19 cases. The state’s hospitals as of Wednesday were collectively treating 240 patients, with 117 in intensive care.
Funding for the testing expansion will come from an emergency COVID-19 response package already approved by the Legislature. The Health Department will be hiring additional staff, Malcolm said, with the expectation of many more contact investigations after more positive cases are found.
As part of the agreement, the state will also create a central lab to accommodate the expanded testing and a virtual command center to monitor testing needs and coordinate responses to potential outbreaks in the state.
The partnership was applauded by state legislators, including Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, who has been the most openly critical of the governor’s stay-at-home order.
“We have to know who is sick and who is recovered in order to safely reopen the state, and testing is one of the best ways to make sure we’re staying safe,” he said. “Testing is important not just to the physical health of our citizens, it’s vitally important to the health of the economy.”
Beyond identification of individual infections, Walz said increased testing efforts will hopefully help the state to head off future business disruptions.
“They will identify emerging hot spots of infection for rapid intervention before they become critical and, we’ve seen this happen, where we have to shut down critical industries,” Walz said.