Reporting backlog from Twin Cities lab leads to unprecedented Minn. COVID-19 case counts

A medical professional peeks through a curtain.
Diana Vega, a registered respiratory therapist, peeks through a curtain during setup at a temporary coronavirus testing site earlier this month in Las Vegas.
John Locher | AP Photo

The Minnesota Department of Health reports an unprecedented number of new COVID-19 cases Thursday, but many are coming from a single provider with a large backlog of unreported cases.

Valley Medical and Wellness, a chronic pain and addiction center that operates multiple clinics and a lab in the Twin Cities, is late in reporting thousands of cases to the state, which has driven up the total number of new tests conducted and new positive cases — and has created case investigation headaches for state health officials. 

“We’ve been trying to work with this facility for quite some time, and they haven’t been helpful,” said Kris Ehresmann, infectious disease director for the Minnesota Department of Health. She said the health department’s legal team has gotten involved in the matter. 

“We try to be collaborative with folks, and sometimes they are unresponsive,” Ehresmann said. 

Dr. Ashwin George, Valley Medical‘s CEO, said the backlog of nearly 19,000 test results stems from software the company was running that was incompatible with the timely data collection the state requires.

“We had to upgrade it, and finally this week we were able to give the state the reporting based on their requirements,” George said. He said that even before the upgrade, the facility was sending positive results to the state through a manual process. 

George said he understands the state’s frustration.

“For a small organization like us, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars upgrading software was not an easy project,” he said. “We did it as fast as we could. We started a lab in May and we are up and doing 500 tests a day.”

In its Thursday data update, the state reported 21,144 new tests, but 4,658 of those — just over 20 percent — tests came from the Valley Medical backlog. 

Meanwhile, new positive cases are up 1,158, but 265 of them — also just over 20 percent — are from the Valley Medical backlog, going back two weeks.

New COVID-19 cases per day in Minnesota

Ehresmann said the health department is still sorting through an additional 14,000 of Valley Medical’s test results, which go back much further.

Typically, after someone is tested for coronavirus, results are available within 24 to 48 hours, though the state has seen some delays with samples sent outside the state for processing.

When a test comes back positive, the results are reported to the state along with the patient’s contact information. A state or county public health employee — a contact tracer — will follow up with that person to talk through how to isolate until they’re better, and to find out who else that person has been in contact with. 

That’s a big reason Ehresmann said the state health department focused on the most recent part of Valley Medical’s backlog. Those infected patients are still within a window of time in which where they need to be isolated so they don’t spread the virus further. 

That’s why, Ehresmann said, it’s critical for providers to report cases quickly. When they don’t, it has a cascading effect: The state can’t follow up on new cases quickly — and can’t advise those patients to isolate, creating the risk that they further spread the virus unknowingly. 

“It’s so important that all providers are timely in reporting to us because without that we cannot take necessary public health actions to mitigate the pandemic,” she said. 

Still, there are 893 new cases independent of the Valley Medical backlog — among the highest daily counts the state has seen since the start of the pandemic. 

Ehresmann said those numbers are troubling, in part, because school districts are relying on case counts to determine whether it’s safe to reopen. If those numbers get too high, districts may have to scrap plans for in-person learning at the last minute. 

“We are seeing large numbers of cases,” she said. “We are aware of multiple situations across the state where people are disregarding the executive orders, disregarding social distancing and that’s really problematic. We are on the cusp of schools starting. The impact of people’s choices is going to affect our children’s education this fall.”

Ehresmann said the Valley Medical backlog will likely contribute to higher-than-usual case counts and testing counts in coming days. 

George says that now that the new software is installed, he doesn’t anticipate delays in getting results to the state daily. 

COVID-19 in Minnesota