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'The Minnesota Moonshot': Walz, health officials announce plan to test 20,000 a day for virus

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Virus Outbreak Minnesota

Minnesota FGov. Tim Walz announced advances for COVID-19 testing in the state, Wednesday, April 22, 2020, in St. Paul, Minn. (Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via AP, Poo,)

Tens of thousands of people could soon be tested every day for COVID-19 and coronavirus antibodies, Minnesota officials announced Wednesday, calling it a breakthrough in their efforts to combat the disease.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said in a briefing that a partnership among the state’s health care providers, the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota will produce a testing capacity of 20,000 daily molecular tests for COVID-19 and 15,000 daily serological tests for antibodies that could determine immunity.

Testing efforts are expected to focus on vulnerable populations in congregate care settings, health care workers, tribal nations, large workforces and more, aligning with the governor’s statement that Iron Range mines could be a targeted testing site once the capacity is reached.

On Monday, Walz said testing at large employers is part of his vision to get community baselines for the virus and catch potential hotspots before large outbreaks occur. Mines would fall under that goal. The comments came in light of JBS USA closing a large pork plant due to an outbreak. The plant is located in southwestern Minnesota’s Nobles County, where COVID-19 cases rose from 12 last Friday to 126 on Wednesday with one death.

“You have to go there and make it available,” said Dr. Jakub Tolar, Dean of the U of M Medical School, during Wednesday’s briefing, on expanding testing to Greater Minnesota and underserved communities. “Make it easy for them to do the right thing.”

Calling the state’s announcement “the Minnesota Moonshot,” Walz and health officials said the current capacity is 8,000 tests a day, but a lack of coordination led to a highly underutilized disbursement of the state’s testing volume.

Tolar said it could take two to three weeks for the new testing plan to run at full capacity, but Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm noted an “uptick” in testing during Wednesday’s data reveal at 1,647 the previous day and expected more in the days.

If Minnesota capitalizes on its newfound capacity, Walz said it could be a model for the nation to follow. It will cost the state $36 million out of the COVID-19 fund approved by the Legislature.

The governor has pushed for 5,000 tests a day since his State of the State address on April 5, but numbers remained stagnant and even dropped off earlier this week.

When asked who Minnesotans should hold responsible if the testing capacity doesn’t materialize, Walz answered “Me … This plan and this program and the delivery of these tests — it lies with me.”

Phasing in testing

Wednesday’s announcement is just the first phase of an agreement on testing, according to Malcolm, and will involve coordinating the state’s major hospital systems, developing a central lab capacity and a virtual command center between the U of M and Mayo Clinic.

The main takeaway of the first phase will be that anyone in need of a test should get one. A health alert was set to go out Wednesday stating “every symptomatic Minnesotan must be tested as soon as possible.”

Virus Outbreak Minnesota

Dr. Jakub Tolar, Dean of the University of Minnesota Medical School and Vice President for Clinical Affairs speaks at a press conference Wednesday, April 22, 2020, where Gov. Tim Walz and leaders from Mayo Clinic, the University of Minnesota, and other Minnesota health system leaders announced advances for COVID-19 testing in Minnesota. (Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via AP, Pool)

She said the word will take a while to trickle down to the systems to perform the tests and the capacity won’t be instantly reached, but the first phase will coordinate testing to areas and populations that give researchers and health officials the most results to track the virus and what to do with those results.

“I would be kidding if I said that would be tomorrow,” Malcolm said. “We’re standing behind the health care systems that if they collect the samples, we’ll get them tested.”

Increased lab capacity and a virtual command center coordinated with the Minnesota Health Department and health care systems, the commissioner added, will allow the state to manage the daily testing flow and capacity with analytics and research.

Among the state’s goals are diagnosis and treatment of those infected, along with surveillance of the disease’s spread and containment.

“We need to understand what we know and don’t know about each of the tests,” Malcolm added.

Reopening Minnesota

Ramping up testing in Minnesota is one of the key cogs in Walz’s plan to reopen the state’s economy. Walz has closed schools, limited bars and restaurants to curbside or delivery services and issued Stay-at-Home orders to promote social distancing efforts, resulting in businesses being deemed non-essential and forced to close.

The ripple effect of the coronavirus has closed automakers and other manufacturers, driving down the demand for steel and leading to three Iron Range mines to announce plans to idle their operations into the summer, laying off more than one-third of the mining workforce locally, about 1,500 jobs.

Walz has faced mounting pressure from Republicans to begin opening the state back up as small businesses teeter on the edge of solvency and the state budget becomes trickier to navigate with its tax flow virtually turned off.

“Wanting to get back to work is not the same as planning to get back to work,” Walz said Wednesday, encouraging the state to continue social distancing despite the testing announcement.

The governor’s executive orders on schools, restaurants and Stay-at-Home are set to expire May 4, and state officials gave no indication on the impact of the testing announcement on mitigation efforts. Walz previously said reopening the state will happen in a phased fashion.

Doug Loon, president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, encouraged the state through a statement to move quickly on testing to bring more businesses back online. Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said Wednesday’s announcement is one step toward that goal.

“In a time of crisis, the private and public sectors have worked together for incredible results,” he said. “ We have to know who is sick and who is recovered in order to safely reopen the state, and testing is one of the best ways to make sure we’re staying safe.”

Virus Outbreak Minnesota

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm speaks at a press conference where Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced advances for COVID-19 testing in the state, Wednesday, April 22, 2020, in St. Paul, Minn. (Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune via AP, Poo,)

State’s deadliest day

The Minnesota Department of Health reported that COVID-19 has killed 19 more Minnesotans as of Wednesday, marking the largest one-day death toll since the pandemic reached the state.The new deaths raised the state’s total to 179.

The state also reported 154 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus, a big one-day jump that raised the state’s total to 2,721. Health officials have cautioned that the real number of Minnesotans infected with the coronavirus is likely much higher because most people don’t qualify for testing, and studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick.

The department also said 240 Minnesotans were hospitalized with the disease as of Wednesday, up three from Tuesday, while 107 were in intensive care, down 10 from Tuesday. Another 1,317 patients have recovered and no longer need isolation.

In St. Lous County, there are 54 cases and 10 deaths.

State officials acknowledged that new single-day highs come as testing was relatively the same as weeks, but cautioned Minnesotans will be hearing more about case increases as testing levels reach capacity.

“We should expect to see those numbers increase more rapidly,” Malcolm said.

Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the U of M, said in Wednesday’s briefing that the virus has only infected about 5 percent of the state and “will not rest until at least 60 to 70 percent” has been infected.

“We are in the first innings of this game. It is not going to be over anytime soon,” he said. “Hope is not a strategy, so we don’t know.”

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