Updated April 28, 5:05 p.m. | Posted: April 27, 7:25 p.m.
Vice President Mike Pence visited Mayo Clinic on Tuesday for a first-hand look at its research on COVID-19 and its plans to help Minnesota dramatically scale up its coronavirus testing as a critical step toward reviving the state's economy.
Pence, who leads the White House Coronavirus task force, was accompanied at the world-renowned medical center in Rochester, Minn., by Gov. Tim Walz. The Democratic governor last week announced a “moonshot” partnership with Mayo and the University of Minnesota to boost the state’s capacity to 20,000 tests per day.
He promised at the time that every resident with symptoms of the coronavirus could get tested once the plan is fully implemented in the next few weeks. Minnesota is one of several states that have quit waiting for the federal government for help.
“I had to be here at Mayo today because when the president and I heard about the moonshot partnership, we knew that this was the right state and the right time to come and celebrate," the Republican vice president said during a roundtable discussion with Walz, top Mayo officials and researchers, and GOP U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn, who represents the area.
While Pence was effusive with praise for Walz, the partnership and Mayo Clinic's leadership in fighting the coronavirus, the vice president started a storm on social media by choosing not to wear a mask, an apparent violation of the medical center's policy requiring them.
Video feeds show that Pence did not wear a mask when he met with a Mayo employee who has recovered from COVID-19 and is now donating plasma, even though everyone else in the room appeared to be wearing one. He was also maskless when he visited a lab where Mayo conducts coronavirus tests.
And Pence was the only participant not to wear a mask during the roundtable discussion with Mayo officials, Walz and Hagedorn.
Mayo tweeted that it had informed the vice president of its mask policy prior to his arrival. The tweet was later removed. Mayo officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on why it was removed, or at whose request.
“Mayo shared the masking policy with the VP’s office,” the health care system said in its response.
Pence also went without a mask a week earlier when he visited a GE Healthcare facility that makes ventilators. Some at the event in Madison, Wis., wore masks and others did not. The White House said then that Pence had tested negative for the coronavirus and suggested that under the guidelines developed by the coronavirus task force there was no need for him to wear a mask.
Pence explained his decision by stressing that he has been frequently tested for the virus.
“As vice president of the United States I’m tested for the coronavirus on a regular basis, and everyone who is around me is tested for the coronavirus,” Pence said, adding that he is following CDC guidelines, which indicate that the mask is good for preventing the spread of the virus by those who have it.
“And since I don’t have the coronavirus, I thought it’d be a good opportunity for me to be here, to be able to speak to these researchers, these incredible health care personnel, and look them in the eye and say ‘thank you.'"
The vice president's gratitude contrasted with the tone that President Trump set recently when he tweeted “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” in support of a protest outside the governor's residence against Walz's stay-at-home order. The president and governor spoke by phone the next day and both said they had a pleasant conversation.
Pence said the White House appreciates Walz “and the partnership that you've forged, not just with our task force, but with our president and with every element of the federal response. Governor, we see the great progress here in Minnesota. We certainly grieve the loss of more than 300 Minnesotans. ... But governor, the fact that you've made the progress that you've made, that the impacts here in Minnesota have been at the level that they've been, is a testament.”
Walz, in turn, thanked Pence, saying, “when we take a whole-government approach, when we take a whole-country approach, when we align our resources really smartly, I think there is a sense of optimism.”
Pence recognized Walz's efforts at a White House briefing Thursday, where he also praised Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine for an initiative to boost his state's testing capacity to 22,000 per day through a partnership with reagent manufacturer Thermo Fisher. The vice president also cited Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds for a partnership with Utah-based startup Nomi Health aimed at increasing her state's lagging testing capacity by 3,000 per day from its current 1,000-2,000.
“This is the kind of approach and commitment that we need, and I’m glad the vice president is shining a light on promising efforts. We need more,” Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said of Pence's visit to Mayo. “Kudos to Minnesota for being a part of that.”
Minnesota has one of the lowest confirmed cases per-capita in the country, but its testing has lagged behind what the Walz administration says is needed. An Associated Press analysis of data from the COVID Tracking Project shows that Minnesota now ranks among the lowest states in per-capita testing, sixth from the bottom at 10.51 per 100,000 residents, with Kansas last at 9.01. Rhode Island is the highest at 50.51. while New York, the hardest hit state, ranks second at 41.21.
“Minnesota is probably low in terms of tests per thousand compared with other states, but the good news for Minnesota is the testing that it's doing relative to the cases it's finding is relatively high ...,” Nuzzo said. “You don't want the majority of your tests resulting in cases because that suggests there's many cases out there you're not finding.”
Minnesota’s death toll from the coronavirus rose by 15 to 301 as of Tuesday, while 365 new confirmed cases raised the statewide total to 4,181. State and private labs have conducted 63,829 tests.
There is huge variation across the country on how aggressive states have been about testing, said Dr. Joel Shalowitz, an adjunct professor at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. That’s partly because some states that do a lot of testing, such as New York and New Jersey, are among the hardest hit states, while some states that do less testing also have fewer cases. So a lot of testing is driven by the need to test, or the alleged need, he said,
While the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic are “absolutely world-class institutions,” Shalowitz said, much will depend on how accurate their testing proves to be. False positives can force healthy patients into isolation, while false negatives can lead to infected people spreading the virus. Accuracy among other institutions varies widely, he said.
“If Minnesota can increase its capacity to 20,000 tests per day, that would be a very meaningful increase in its testing capacity,” said Dr. Thomas Tsai, a health policy researcher at the Harvard Global Health Institute.
Being home to both the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic “does increase the tools in the toolbox for being able to perform tests,” he said. But test numbers aren't the whole answer, he cautioned.
“Testing capacity is one part of the puzzle,” Tsai said “The most important piece is the strategy around testing — not waiting for people to show up. You have to do active contact tracing and active outreach into the community.”