Minnesota health officials said Sunday that they have caught up to a backlog of COVID-19 tests, as efforts ramped up to get much-needed protective gear to health care workers.

There are now 169 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in 28 counties around the state, the state Health Department reported, including 32 it added to the list Sunday. But the confirmed number is likely only a small share of the total number of people with the virus, since the state’s public health lab has tested only 4,680 people.

The state had been behind on processing even those tests, but state infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann said Mayo Clinic has stepped in to help. Eliminating the backlog should enable the health department to get back to patients with results faster, the department said, with the priority on notifying those who test positive.

“We believe that we can now keep pace with the volume of priority-population testing,” she said. “We thank Mayo for their assistance.”

In its daily update of the case count, the Health Department detected cases of COVID-19 in Cass and Le Sueur counties for the first time. The cases include one fatality in Ramsey County, which the department reported Saturday.

Hennepin County, which has the most residents and the most infections, added five new confirmed cases to bring its total to 57.

Since the supplies of chemical reagents needed to run diagnostic tests for COVID-19 remain in limited supply, the Health Department is prioritizing COVID-19 testing of hospitalized patients, health care workers and people in group-living situations.

Minnesotans remained focused Sunday on supplying much-needed protective gear for health care workers amid the outbreak.

Maplewood’s 3M Co. said Sunday that it has ramped up production of N95 respirators, which are face-worn air filters designed to block out 95% of very small particles, including many pathogens.

3M CEO Mike Roman said in a public statement Sunday that the manufacturer is now producing nearly 100 million N95 respirators per month, including 35 million per month in the United States. More than 90% of the U.S.-made respirators are designated for health care workers, with the remaining supply going to other critical industries like energy, food and pharmaceutical companies.

“As I write this, more than 500,000 respirators are on the way from our South Dakota plant to two of the more critically impacted areas, New York and Seattle, with arrivals expected starting tomorrow,” Roman wrote Sunday. “We are also ready to expedite additional shipments across the country.”

Roman said 3M is now running at maximum capacity for N95 respirator production, though it plans to nearly double that capacity again within the next 12 months. The company has also maximized production of hand sanitizer and disinfectants.

Minnesota’s Medical Alley Association on Sunday announced an online tool letting organizations report what COVID-related supplies or services they need, or which ones they can provide, including personal protective equipment.

“We invite all parties around the globe to use our COVID-19 Resource Connect tool in order to assist in ensuring no patient has to go without the lifesaving resources they need due to lack of supplies and capabilities,” Medical Alley Association CEO Shaye Mandle said.

Meanwhile, Gov. Tim Walz on Saturday night activated the Minnesota National Guard to transport personal protective equipment needed by health care workers, as the state waits for the federal government to deliver supplies.

Executive Order 20-13 authorizes the state’s National Guard for an “initial mission” of transporting supplies needed to prevent health care workers from contracting the virus that causes someone to get COVID-19. The supplies will be transported from the Camp Ripley regional training center near Little Falls to the Health Department’s warehouse in St. Paul.

The governor’s announcement of the executive order didn’t say what personal protective equipment (PPE) will be transported. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says PPE for health care workers includes gowns, masks or respirators, goggles or face shields, and gloves.

The National Guard will also help plan and coordinate delivery of PPE through the state’s Emergency Operations Center.

The executive order, which will remain in effect throughout the statewide emergency declared March 13 by Walz, “helps address the critically low supply of PPE in Minnesota’s hospitals and health care facilities, as well as the delivery delays from the federal government’s Strategic National Stockpile,” Walz’s statement about the executive order says.

Walz issued the order upon request from the Health Department, after the request was vetted through state emergency-operations officials.

“In times of need, Minnesotans pull together to make sure we have the resources and supplies we need to get through challenges,” Walz said in a statement. “Minnesota’s hospitals, health care facilities, and first responders are in desperate need of personal protective equipment, and I’m grateful to have the Minnesota National Guard’s partnership in delivering these supplies for Minnesotans.”

The health department also addressed a problem that has emerged since Walz last week ordered all elective or “nonessential” medical and dental procedures that use personal protective equipment to be postponed indefinitely, partly to conserve those supplies for the most-needed cases. On Sunday, officials said the order had led many people with dental issues to go to hospital emergency rooms for emergency care, “overloading” them and urgent care centers.

“If you are experiencing a dental emergency, please contact your dentist,” Ehresmann said Sunday. “And we are asking dentists to make their practice available to care for patients who are experiencing dental emergencies and to provide emergent dental care that is needed, based on their clinical judgment.”

The Minnesota Board of Dentistry told its licensees “it’s not acceptable” to state on a voice mail greeting that the office is closed without providing a way to reach the dentist in emergency cases: “This practice defers an otherwise healthy patient to seek dental emergency treatment in the ER … placing further burden on an already strained system during this time of crisis.”

 

Correction: Previous versions of this article misstated how many counties in Minnesota saw their first COVID-19 cases. The correct number is two.