A new state web page debuted Friday to help sick people decide if they need COVID-19 diagnostic tests and guide them on where to go to give nasal or throat samples.
The page is the next step in an aggressive testing strategy, unveiled this week by Gov. Tim Walz in partnership with Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota, that has gained the attention of Vice President Mike Pence and other governors.
“You wake up, you’re achy, you’re coughing, and you’re symptomatic,” Walz said. “Get online and say, ‘Oh, down here 3 miles away, or wherever it may be, I can go down and get a test.’ ”
Increased testing comes as Minnesota appears headed toward a peak in its pandemic and as the nation — per tracking by the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center — has surpassed 50,000 deaths from the infectious disease.
State health officials warned this week that more testing would mean more COVID-19, and that proved true Friday with lab confirmation of an additional 243 cases. The Minnesota Department of Health reported 21 deaths as well, bringing the total death toll of the pandemic to 221 and the case count to 3,185.
The new cases were based on 2,239 tests by public and private labs that were reported Friday. That was a single-day high for testing. There have been 53,787 tests total. The state’s $36 million deal with the U and Mayo will soon allow for 20,000 tests per day, however.
Walz acknowledged that the website and testing clinics are a work in progress, and that there may be regional gaps in clinics. On the other hand, the site will provide real-time information on whether testing sites are open.
Minnesota had tried an open-ended approach to testing in March, after President Donald Trump stated that anyone who needed a test would receive it.
But many drive-through testing sites and clinics ran out of collection swabs and liquids for transporting samples. The state public health lab and others also suffered shortages of chemicals needed to determine if specimens contained the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
The state consequently prioritized testing for people who had been hospitalized, lived in long-term care facilities, or worked in health care. An alert sent Thursday to doctors ended those restrictions.
Walz issued a statewide stay-at-home order until May 4 and recently extended the shutdown of K-12 schools through the end of this school year to buy time for hospitals to bulk up on critical care beds and supplies for an eventual surge of cases.
The governor said the state’s efforts appear to be working and are one reason why the vice president is making his second visit to Minnesota in two months. On Tuesday, Pence will visit Mayo and its labs.
“As of today,” Walz said, “I feel confident that anyone who would need critical care in a hospital would get it.”
Improved health care readiness amid the shutdowns has come with consequences, including more than 500,000 Minnesotans filing for unemployment insurance benefits, and difficulties in maintaining academic development for the state’s K-12 students.
State leaders on Friday said they want to improve online learning — partly by fixing broadband shortages that leave rural students behind, and by accommodating for economic disadvantages that make it harder for poor and minority students.
“These inequities have been further exacerbated by this crisis,” said Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan. “I think we’ve heard some say that COVID-19 is the great equalizer, but that couldn’t be further from the truth” for public education.
The governor invited students and teachers to share their experiences under online learning, with Lap Nguyen of Rochester describing the emotions of a senior year without a graduation ceremony, the challenges of helping a brother with an attention disorder, and the difficulties of online learning for classmates for whom English is a second language.
“This may be one of the defining moments of our generation,” he said.
Claire Murphy, a 10-year-old elementary school student in St. Paul, said daily lunch with her family isn’t the same as being in the school cafeteria and that she misses her friends and a class pet lizard, Slayer.
And then there’s her younger brother. “He’s kind of loud and he likes to run around the house,” she said.
While the state will be assessing ways to maintain academic achievement through distanced learning, state Department of Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said success starts with maintaining positive relationships between teachers and students — even online.
“To get to those academic needs as effectively as possible, students have to know that they are seen and heard and that they would be missed if they were gone from that classroom,” she said.
While already making the school closure decision, Walz on Friday said he would be hastening efforts to notify Minnesotans about whether he would end, extend or modify the current stay-at-home order.
The governor on Thursday had given permission for 20,000 select manufacturing and warehousing businesses to reopen Monday with proper social distancing measures in place. However, he again warned on Friday that it might take longer to “turn down the dial” on stay-at-home restrictions and allow high-traffic malls and sports venues to reopen.
COVID-19 is caused by a novel coronavirus for which there is no proven treatment or vaccine. Although as many as 80% of infections result in only mild to moderate symptoms, COVID-19 can cause severe respiratory problems that can require intensive hospital care or the use of ventilators to help patients maintain adequate breathing.
As of Friday, 278 cases were in Minnesota hospitals, and 111 of those patients required intensive care.
The pandemic continued to be harshest on long-term care facilities. Thirty-nine of the 42 deaths reported in the past two days were residents of such facilities. The median age of all deaths is 83.
The state has had 172 long-term care facilities with at least one case, including 820 residents and 303 workers — although many have recovered.
The spread is exacerbating a shortage of long-term care workers, when considering that outbreaks not only sideline sick workers but others who potentially had been exposed to the virus, said Kris Ehresmann, state infectious disease director.
“That compounds the situation,” she said.
Hospitals and clinics have provided temporary help to cover shortfalls at long-term care facilities, but the need for more workers resulted in a mass job posting on the Minnesota Board of Nursing website earlier this week.