Minnesotans seeking COVID-19 testing should be prepared for delays in results amid a national surge in cases of the infectious disease that is stretching testing supplies and laboratory capacities again.
While delays this summer are different from those at the start of the pandemic — when global shortages limited testing to select populations — they could result in people waiting as long as eight days to find out if they are infected with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Supply problems are not changing Minnesota’s current broad guidance, which allows testing in the absence of symptoms if people have been exposed to others who have COVID-19, said Kris Ehresmann, state infectious disease director.
“Just want people to be aware … that you may need to be prepared for a longer wait time for lab results,” she said.
The rising case count and testing backlogs nationally come at a middling moment in the pandemic in Minnesota, which on Wednesday reported eight deaths and 463 lab-confirmed infections of the COVID-19 virus.
Totals in Minnesota have reached 1,485 deaths and 39,589 known infections. While case counts have increased in recent days, they are well off their peaks in late May.
Cases have surged among young adults and teens — with cases doubling in the 19 and younger age group since June 1 — but hospitalizations have not. The 265 people hospitalized for COVID-19 on Wednesday — including 122 needing intensive care — was below the peak of 606 on May 28.
The rising but stable growth of COVID-19 cases in Minnesota resulted in a favorable forecast compared with the rest of the nation this week by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) in Washington.
IHME estimates that Minnesota as of Nov. 1 will have a rate of 5.94 active infections per 100,000 people — a rate that includes lab-confirmed infections and asymptomatic infections that aren’t detected through testing. That is the ninth-lowest predicted rate among states.
The modeling estimates that Minnesota will have suffered 1,951 COVID-19 deaths by Nov. 1 if it continues with its current, gradual scaling back of restrictions on businesses and operating capacities at bars and other public places. However, if the state imposed a mask-wearing requirement that was followed by 95% of the public, the predicted death toll would drop to 1,756.
Gov. Tim Walz expressed cautious optimism on Wednesday that Minnesota’s gradual scaling back, since the end of a statewide stay-at-home order on May 18, has insulated it somewhat from the surging case counts in states that quickly reopened.
“With that being said, I think with the re-emergence of the virus across the South, the increasing numbers, even in places like Iowa and Wisconsin, start to make us pause just a little bit,” Walz said.
The national growth in testing and cases is having local consequences. Mayo Clinic’s national reference lab in Rochester was turning around COVID-19 tests in 24 hours but is now needing 72 to 96 hours due to rising demand and new supply issues, said Dr. William Morice, president of Mayo Clinic Laboratories.
“All the testing demands nationally, really globally, are interconnected,” he said.
Mayo has been an important source of test processing for Minnesota, particularly when the state was providing free tests in Minneapolis and St. Paul to assess the spread of the virus after mass protests and riots in late May.
State health officials said they are worried that the recent increase in young adult and teenager infections could spread the virus to adults who are at higher risk due to their age or chronic health problems such as diabetes, asthma or heart disease. People 70 and older make up 11% of confirmed cases but 81% of COVID-19 deaths.
While the state has reported only two deaths from COVID-19 in people 29 or younger, one death reported on Wednesday involved a Hennepin County resident in the 30s age range with no apparent underlying medical conditions.
Ehresmann said she was particularly concerned by rumors of “COVID parties” in which young people intentionally seek infection to get COVID-19 behind them.
“This is a really, really bad idea,” she said.
Of course, regular parties without the use of masks or social distancing aren’t helping. Ehresmann said “a very large party” in late June helped fuel an outbreak among teenagers in Edina — which had only 227 cases by June 24 but has had at least 154 since then. The median age of cases in that second phase was 20.
Edina also is an anomaly with children and teens making up its largest age group of COVID-19 cases, but Ehresmann said the problem is broader than one community and includes young adults. Outbreaks at seven or eight bars in Minnesota have been linked to at least 457 cases.
“Young people from across the state are accounting for the bulk of cases in the last two weeks,” she said. “In part it’s because they’re engaging in activities that we know are so natural, so fun, and so normal for youth. But in the time of COVID, we need to make sure we’re asking people to reconsider some of those activities.”
Belated spikes in outbreaks in other states also suggest that Minnesota could still see an increase in cases related to recent changes in social and environmental conditions, said Jan Malcolm, state health commissioner.
Increased virus transmission, following the June limited reopenings of restaurants and entertainment destinations, might take four or more weeks to show up compared to the initial expectations of two to three weeks, she said.
“It’s been sobering to us to realize the time window for judging the effect of things might be a bit longer,” she said.
Malcolm added that the course of the pandemic in the coming days will be influential as the state weighs how and when to reopen public schools in the fall, and whether to mandate that people wear masks to reduce transmission of the virus. Health officials are reviewing experiences in other states, she said, to see if mandates instead of strong recommendations result in actual increases in mask-wearing.
Walz also must decide whether to extend the peacetime emergency declaration, which goes through Monday, that gives him sweeping authority over the state’s pandemic response.
Staff writer Briana Bierschbach contributed to this report.