Walz: State plans to launch COVID-19 testing effort among young adults

A person wearing PPE and holding a nasal swab in silhouette.
A nurse administers a nasal swab during a free drive-thru COVID-19 testing event at Incarnation-Sagrado Corazon Church in Minneapolis in August.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News file

Updated: 3:30 p.m.

Gov. Tim Walz said Wednesday that Minnesota is preparing for another possible expansion of its COVID-19 testing aimed at tamping down what has become a rapid increase in the presence of the disease statewide.

Younger adults, between the ages of 18 to 35, represent the largest number of new cases in Minnesota right now — and Walz said people within that age group who are infected with COVID-19 but don’t have any symptoms are driving much of the virus’ spread in the state.

Plans are underway to make testing easily available to Minnesotans in their 20s and early 30s, he added, a group that amounts to hundreds of thousands of state residents.

"What we're looking at is massive testing, either in pop-up kiosks in places we can go, and asking 18- to 35-year-olds pull over for 30 seconds and take this test,” Walz said. “And we get a result instantly. This one we get in 15 minutes. And we can start to break this." 

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A man and woman wearing masks talk
Gov. Tim Walz listens as Randi Trowbridge talks about her husband's fight to survive COVID-19 during an event in Moorhead Wednesday.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

The governor didn’t offer many details about how the testing would work, when it would begin or how residents could access it.

In a call with reporters Wednesday afternoon, Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm did not offer additional details on any immediate efforts to specifically test younger adults but said the state is “early in the logistical planning” of possible widespread testing of people in that age group.

“We’re doing a lot of planning right now on how we could pursue this strategy, and the specifics of which test might best lend themselves to this,” she said.

She said the state is piloting the use of rapid testing as a possible tool in its COVID-19 response, but is still figuring out the best ways to make that happen.

Malcolm said the governor’s comments Wednesday come on the heels of a recent visit from Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force.

“One of her strongest recommendations to us was to try to get a better handle on the amount of asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic spread that is going on, particularly among this age cohort of 18- to 35-year-olds,” Malcolm said.

She said Birx urged state officials to try new strategies that might allow them to better understand the way the virus is spreading among people without symptoms — and to identify people who have the virus, but don’t have symptoms, so that they can quarantine and limit the spread.

“One of the critical things that has changed during the course of the pandemic is our awareness of the significant role that asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic spread can play and does play in transmission,” she said.

She said any new efforts would be in addition to the state’s ongoing multipronged testing efforts, which include several different types of testing sites across the state.

“Just by virtue of what we know about community spread … there are a lot of people circulating in the community who have been exposed, don’t know it, don’t know they’re positive, and are spreading the virus to others unknowingly,” she said.

Minnesota’s COVID-19 cases have surged throughout the month of October, with a stunning rise in nearly all the indicators health officials watch closely to better understand — and mitigate — the spread of the disease.

New Minnesota COVID-19 cases by age, adjusted for population

Health Department assistant commissioner Dan Huff, who joined Walz in Moorhead Wednesday, said that testing more young adults could help curb the spread of COVID-19 in Minnesota because people in that age group often have asymptomatic cases of the virus. 

"We want them to get tested so they can then know if they're infected so they can isolate,” he said. “That will help us stop that source of transmission in an area we see as a major reservoir for the disease spreading out through the state."

Walz also said that the state is also considering using a cellphone app as a way to expedite its contract tracing efforts in people who test positive. He said the app would only be used for people who agree to allow their information to be shared.

As of Wednesday, 1.8 million Minnesotans have been tested for COVID-19 at least once. That’s about 32 percent of the state’s total population of 5.64 million.

Wednesday marked another day of nearly 2,000 new cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota — and fewer than 20,000 tests, leading to another day of an elevated positivity rate. The state’s seven-day average positivity rate as of Wednesday is 8.2, up from 6.3 percent last Monday. State health officials have said that they start to get concerned about positivity rates above 5 percent.

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based off Minnesota Department of Health cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.