Twenty Salvation Army staff members from Minnesota and North Dakota tested positive for COVID-19 after 62 people attended a recent conference in northern Minnesota, underscoring how easily the virus can spread.
“Despite adherence to the health guidance, we fully acknowledge that COVID-19 is formidable and highly contagious,” Salvation Army spokesman Dan Furry said in a statement. “We regret that anyone was exposed to or contracted the COVID-19 virus, and our prayers for a speedy recovery are with those individuals and their families.”
Of the 20 infected people, none were hospitalized with complications, he said, and the Salvation Army is still awaiting test results from some attendees of the Oct. 6-8 conference.
The outbreak comes at a time when the state is experiencing widespread transmission of the new coronavirus, with 1,120 new cases reported Tuesday — the 13th consecutive day that case counts have topped 1,000.
Public health officials encourage anyone who has COVID-19 symptoms — including coughing, shortness of breath, fever and body aches — to get tested, as well as people who have been exposed to an infected person.
The state’s testing capacity will expand after a saliva testing facility opened Tuesday in Oakdale that can process up to 30,000 tests a day once it is fully operational.
“Testing shows us who’s infected and helps us break that chain, so I think it’s critical,” Gov. Tim Walz said in comments to reporters following a tour of the facility. “We’ve bent the curve, but this thing is coming back.”
Minnesota began collecting saliva samples in Duluth in late September and has since opened three additional locations with plans for six more. Those samples were being shipped out of state for processing but will now be run through the Oakdale lab, improving turnaround times.
Over the last six days, Minnesota has averaged about 29,400 tests each day, with Tuesday’s testing volume dropping 37% to 13,903, because fewer tests are typically performed over the weekend.
Testing has detected 125,531 infections over the course of the pandemic in Minnesota, with nearly 1.7 million state residents having received at least one test.
There were an additional seven deaths, with five of them among residents of long-term care facilities, bringing the state’s total to 2,246.
The state’s “dial back dashboard” shows that three of the five metrics it tracks are in the cautionary zone, including the hospitalization rate, daily new case rate and percentage of cases with no known exposure.
Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said that while those measures are higher than they want to see, Minnesota is still not in the high-risk category.
“There’s no question that our level of concern is increasing and that we are really trying to dig deep into all of the data,” she said.
When asked if there might be new restrictions in response to recent trends, Walz said, “Up until this point, we’ve not had to dial back. We’ve not had to shut things down. … We’re watching closely.”
Walz said he wished restrictions could be eliminated, but he said getting rid of mask mandates and capacity limits in restaurants “is not a plan.”
The Salvation Army learned of a positive case Oct. 12 after the Oct. 6-8 conference. The nonprofit shut down its Roseville headquarters “out of an abundance of caution,” boosted cleanings of its sites and quarantined all conference attendees, Furry said in a statement.
The semiannual conference was held at the Salvation Army’s camp in Finlayson and gave officers the option to attend in person or virtually while mandating that those in person wore masks and distanced. But according to a Pioneer Press article, some participants were seen not complying with those guidelines.
The Salvation Army is reopening its offices Wednesday because it has been two weeks since the first confirmed case. Furry said the nonprofit isn’t aware of any confirmed cases of secondary spread and is in touch with the Minnesota Department of Health.
The department said it has received reports of five cases linked to the conference, adding that some cases may not have been reported or case interviews not yet conducted.
Over the past week, 524 people have been admitted to the hospital for COVID-19 complications, including 100 who required intensive care.
While hospitalizations have been generally increasing, admissions over the past seven days are down 13% from the previous seven-day period.
People with underlying health conditions, including obesity, diabetes and heart or kidney disease, are more likely to need hospital care or die from COVID-19 infection.
Most people who get infected experience mild symptoms, and some don’t feel sick at all. Since the pandemic began, 111,634, or 89% of all cases, are considered to be no longer a threat of spreading the virus and no longer required to isolate.
The recent rise in cases has come with an expansion of testing in Minnesota. The new Oakdale lab test, based on saliva samples, was developed by a research group affiliated with Rutgers University in New Jersey. As part of a $24.66 million state contract to operate the testing program, a company in New York is developing versions of the test that can be taken at home and in on-site clinics. The test will simultaneously process samples for the flu virus.
Funding for the program came from the federal CARES Act, a wide-ranging law that was designed to stimulate the economy while responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
At full capacity, the lab will employ up to 250 people. Since the Duluth location opened in the city’s convention center, it has processed more than 10,000 saliva tests, with daily traffic between 400 and 800 people.
The Moorhead location had 340 people show up on Saturday, the first day it opened. Winona is getting about 200 people each day, while the Brooklyn Park test site, which opened Tuesday, tested 500 people by late afternoon.