Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced a statewide testing strategy Wednesday that he says is critical to reopening the state and protecting its most vulnerable. The partnership involves Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota, who have been working in recent weeks to expand COVID-19 testing.
Why are state officials expanding COVID-19 testing?
State officials point to antibody and molecular testing as crucial tools in developing their plans to reopen society.
Officials hope data derived from the testing will provide insight into how widespread the virus is, and how long it’s been in the state.
It’s unclear how this plan will impact Walz's decisions around easing the social distancing guidelines in place, as well as the statewide stay-at-home rules that are set to last until May 4.
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The governor said the data that comes from widespread testing is a key component to getting there, but he hasn't announced any decisions around schools and certain businesses reopening.
What’s the difference between the two types of tests?
The plan calls for 20,000 diagnostic tests and 15,000 antibody tests to be performed daily statewide.
Antibody tests — serology tests — determine who has been exposed to the coronavirus, and the diagnostic test determines who has an active infection.
Antibody tests — typically a finger prick or blood draw — look for proteins in a patient’s blood that the body has created to fight the coronavirus. If those antibodies are present, it’s a sign that the patient has already had COVID-19 — even if they didn’t experience severe symptoms, or any symptoms at all.
Nose-swab diagnostic tests — molecular tests — are used to determine if someone is actively fighting the disease.
Under the new plan, who will be eligible for testing?
Moving forward, everyone who has COVID-19 symptoms will be able to get a test.
That’s a significant departure from current guidelines, which prioritize tests for people who are in the hospital, who are health care workers and who live in congregate care facilities.
Officials said Wednesday that expanded testing will also go a long way in reaching vulnerable populations across the state: People who are homeless, older Minnesotans and communities of color.
How quickly will people be able to get tested under the new criteria?
It won’t happen as quickly as walking into a clinic this week to get a test. State officials were unclear as to exactly when the testing will ramp up, but said the first phase of the plan is expected to last about a month.
“We're not trying to dodge the question, but how quickly we can get there will depend on just a number of factors," state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Wednesday.
In the next few weeks, clinics and hospitals around the state will start taking more samples from patients who suspect they’re infected — and will send them to the central lab as it expands its own capacity.
What happens to the new test results?
As part of the plan, the Minnesota Department of Health, Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota will also ramp up contact tracing — connecting with patients who test positive for COVID-19, and identifying others in their circle who might have been exposed to the virus, so they can also be tested.
The state health department announced that it has added 80 new case investigators to better track people who have the virus, and plans to add more.
What else is included in the plan?
Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota will create a central lab to accommodate all that expanded testing.
The plan also includes resolving supply chain issues for lab supplies and reducing cost barriers.
The state is planning to establish a virtual command center to coordinate with health care systems across Minnesota. The center would help determine how to deploy tests to where they’re needed most on a day-to-day basis, and will quickly address outbreaks that occur.
That coordination is key. State officials are hoping the new central command will help them figure out the logistics — which so far been a challenge.
The state also has plans to launch a website where patients can locate an available testing site nearby and find other resources.
How does this differ from the current approach to testing?
Walz has said 5,000 tests a day would give his administration the data it needs to determine how and when to reopen the economy, but the state has reached only a fraction of that goal so far.
A lack of supplies has so far hampered the ability to do widespread testing in Minnesota.
But in addition to dealing with supply-chain issues, the state has also been trying to work out how to use its limited supplies effectively: Where are they needed most? How can they get to vulnerable populations? How can they quickly test people in hot spots?
How will this testing be funded?
Walz is planning to use $36 million from a state COVID-19 fund. Minnesota House leaders said in statements Wednesday that the funding for the plan is assured.
It’s also possible the administration will ask the Legislature for additional funding to move testing forward and possibly expand it further. The Walz administration also said it’s waiting on funding from Congress, which is being debated in Washington right now.
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.