The toll of the COVID-19 pandemic showed no signs of peaking in Minnesota on Wednesday, when the state Department of Health reported another 19 deaths, bringing the statewide total to 179.
The state also reported another 154 newly lab-confirmed infections, and that 240 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, a respiratory illness caused by a novel coronavirus. Among those hospitalized, 107 are in intensive care. The number of reported deaths is the most so far in a single day.
The new counts came Wednesday morning as signs pointed to the announcement of a new statewide strategy using the University of Minnesota, Mayo Clinic and other health care providers to dramatically increase COVID-19 diagnostic testing in the state.
The total case count of 2,721 is based on 49,344 tests by the state public health lab and private labs such as Mayo, but state health officials have said that is inadequate to truly understand the spread of COVID-19 in Minnesota. Gov. Tim Walz had previously said he wants to increase capacity in Minnesota to as many as 5,000 diagnostic tests per day.
State epidemiologists are working under the assumption that every one confirmed case represents as many as 100 unconfirmed cases, given the high number of people who suffer mild or no symptoms at all.
State Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said earlier this week that an announcement on the expansion of testing in Minnesota was imminent. State health officials also gave testimony to a Senate committee on Tuesday about the need to expand testing so that all people with suspicious respiratory symptoms could know if they have been infected by the coronavirus.
“Anyone in Minnesota that has symptoms, we want them to be able to go to their clinics, go to their health providers, and get tested,” said Dan Huff, assistant health commissioner, in testimony to the committee on Tuesday.
Minnesota tried such 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.
Mayo’s national reference lab and other labs have suffered similar shortages but have helped increase testing in recent weeks. Roughly three-fourths of COVID-19 tests in Minnesota are now performed by external labs.
The University of Minnesota last week announced a $20 million proposal that would include the ability to conduct 10,000 diagnostic tests per day.
The U developed its own diagnostic test platform based on research with the virus and won’t be affected by chemical shortages of any one commercial diagnostic kit, said Marc Jenkins, director for the U’s Center for Immunology.
State health officials also want to increase surveillance testing for the virus and to more closely monitor high-risk individuals such as long-term care residents.
The majority of deaths have involved residents of such facilities. COVID-19 globally has produced higher rates of serious illness among the elderly and people with underlying health conditions.
A news release stated that Walz will appear at a live press briefing at 2 p.m. Wednesday, though it was unclear if a new testing deal would be discussed.
The latest data showed a continued spread of the coronavirus into rural parts of the state. The confirmed case count in Polk County spiked from four to 17. There are now 126 cases, including one death, in Nobles County, where the JBS pork plant was recently shuttered due to high infection rates among workers.