In 'breakthrough' announcement, Minn. unveils major COVID-19 testing effort

Samples are tested for COVID-19.
Samples are tested for COVID-19 March 3, 2020, at the Minnesota Department of Health.
Courtesy of Minnesota Department of Health

Updated: 6:03 p.m. | Posted: 2:32 p.m.

Minnesota will soon be able to test tens of thousands of people a day for COVID-19 and evidence of coronavirus antibodies.

Gov. Tim Walz announced Wednesday a joint effort by Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota to rapidly increase the state’s testing capacity.

The plan calls for 20,000 daily diagnostic tests, which detect active cases of COVID-19, and 15,000 daily antibody tests, which detect whether a person has been exposed to the coronavirus.

Walz called the development a massive breakthrough in the state’s effort to control the spread of the disease and slowly reopen the economy.

“The increase in testing and tracing will improve our control of the pandemic and help us think about those strategies to start reopening our society,” he said.

The plan includes expanding hospital lab capacity, resolving supply chain issues for lab supplies and reducing cost barriers.

The governor said the plan will make Minnesota a national leader in COVID-19 testing, and is a key crucial element of giving state leaders the data they need in order to figure out how and when to reopen the economy. But he cautioned that it was not a panacea.

"This is not a pass that everything is back to normal and it's all easy from here on out. It's one tool in the toolbox that leads us in that direction," Walz said, stressing the need to continue social distancing and some other response measures.

The governor has previously called for the state to complete at least 5,000 tests daily, although the state has reached only about a quarter of that goal so far.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the increased testing effort will remove any questions about who should be tested for exposure to the coronavirus.

“Every symptomatic Minnesotan must be tested as soon as possible,” Malcolm said.

That’s a departure from current guidelines, which prioritize testing for people who are in the hospital, health care workers and people who live or work in congregate care settings.

She added that the state will also focus on intensive testing of the state’s populations that are most vulnerable to the coronavirus, including “Minnesotans living in congregate settings and those experiencing homelessness, staff that serve these vulnerable populations, health care workers.”

Malcolm said the tests will also focus on members of Native American tribes in Minnesota, as well as communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted by the disease.

Walz has said that a massive increase in testing — both tests that diagnose people who have the virus and tests that determine whether someone has developed antibodies to fight the virus — is necessary to restart parts of the economy.

Walz is planning to use $36 million from a state COVID-19 fund for the first phase of a several-step process: A three- to four-week period in which Mayo Clinic and the U of M will create a central lab to accommodate the expanded testing. Clinics and hospitals around the state will also be ramping up their efforts to take samples from potentially infected patients, which they will then send to that new central lab.

The state is also planning to establish a virtual command center, to coordinate the state’s response with health care systems across Minnesota. The center would help determine where the tests are needed most on a given day, and how best to quickly address outbreaks that occur.

A new website, in which patients can see exactly where all the testing sites are among other resources, is also in the works.

In the meantime, state officials are stepping up Minnesota’s isolation and quarantine capacity — to boost disease investigation and to try to slow down the spread of the virus that has killed 179 people, a third of them in the last week.

Minnesota House leaders said in statements Wednesday that the funding for the plan is assured.

“It's essential for Minnesota's leaders to be guided by science and public health expertise in their decision-making,” Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said in a statement.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, echoed the sentiment.

“Minnesota is going to lead the nation in testing, and it's my hope we can lead the nation in showing how we can safely reopen our economy," he said in a statement.

The House Health and Human Services Finance Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the test funding Thursday afternoon.

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Health officials for weeks have been increasingly raising the alarm over the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States. The disease is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.

Government and medical leaders are urging people to wash their hands frequently and well, refrain from touching their faces, cover their coughs, disinfect surfaces and avoid large crowds, all in an effort to curb the virus’ rapid spread.

The state of Minnesota has temporarily closed schools, while administrators work to determine next steps, and is requiring a temporary closure of all in-person dining at restaurants, bars and coffee shops, as well as theaters, gyms, yoga studios and other spaces in which people congregate in close proximity.