Gov. Walz announces plans For most coronavirus tests in the country'

Gov: testing will keep vulnerable people safe and provide data to lead to loosening up restrictions

Sloane Martin
April 22, 2020 - 1:28 pm

Minnesota is positioning itself to have the highest testing rate in the nation, according to Gov. Tim Walz.

A partnership between the state, the University of Minnesota, Mayo Clinic and healthcare systems will rapidly ramp up testing for symptomatic people.

“This is one for the ages,” University of Minnesota Medical School Dean Dr. Jakub Tolar said.

Health experts called it a “hopeful day.” Even as Minnesota announced its largest increase in deaths -- 19 for a total of 179 -- and cases -- an increase of 154 to 2,721 -- this is a step, they say, that sets up Minnesota to be a national leader. 

Walz says testing is a key component of gathering information on the road to loosening restrictions.

“The capacity that we’re announcing today has a capacity to test 20,000 Minnesotans per day,” Walz said. “The increased testing and tracing will improve our control of the pandemic and help us think about those strategies to start reopening our society.”

It means that anyone who is symptomatic can be tested for the virus at their normal clinic anywhere in the state. Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm cautioned that the 20,000 threshold might not come “tomorrow,” but HealthPartners, for example, is rebuilding its drive-thru testing.

There will still be a focus on vulnerable groups -- health care workers, those hospitalized and with underlying medical conditions -- but they will be free and people will not be turned away as before.

“The University of Minnesota, Mayo Clinic and Department of Health will facilitate contract tracing efforts for better control of the infection,” Walz said. “They will identify emerging hot spots of infection for rapid intervention before they become critical and we need to, and we’ve seen this happen, shut down critical industries.”

The partnership is more than the gathering and processing of tests but the research and data collection.

“We continue to think not just about getting the tests out there,” Dr. William Morice, the President of Mayo Clinic Laboratories, said, “but really be thought-leaders as a state about how we get the information from the testing, first, to help take care of the crisis, and then the longer questions about what does it mean to have an antibody? Does that make me safe to go back to work? These are the answers that we can find much for quickly together with the governor’s and his team’s leadership than on our own and that’s why this is so important, I think, for all Minnesotans.”

 

“We need to be strategic and understand what we know and what we don’t know about the appropriate role of each of these tests, and how good the tests are and what they’re good for and what kind of situations” Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said. “We intend for the strategy to drive a really smart application of these tests. Not just tests for tests’ sake, but because we know what to do with the results for both clinical and population health goals.”

“This is why I think this is such a unique system and why I give the governor such credit for bringing together this community ground,” Dr. Michael Osterholm said. “Because it’s one thing to test. It’s another thing to understand what it means when you test and how to use the data.”

Minnesota, like all other states, was slowed by problems in the global supply chain for the chemicals, supplies and PPE needed to complete tests.

“Our challenge has been that the testing capacity has been inadequate. We could collect more than we could actually get processed across the entire state,” Andrea Walsh, President and CEO of HealthPartners, said. “ Because of the testing shortages that the commissioner mentioned, whether it was reagents, swab, what have you, the power of this partnership is figuring out our supply chain better together so that we can confidently ramp up collection and processing of tests and know that we have the capacity on the back end for those tests to be performed.”

Walz and health leaders like Dr. Osterholm stress that it is one tool in the toolbox and does not replace or end physical distancing.

With such a low percentage, around 5 percent, of people infected, there is still a major risk to the general population until there’s a vaccine.

“It’s very hard for Minnesotans to hear this,” Osterholm said. “It;s very important they understand we are in the very first innings of this game. I think what we also have to all understand is that we are gonna have hard days ahead. Very hard days. And we have to hang together.”

Walz’s announcement is a stark contrast to other governors like Brian Kemp of Georgia who are opening back up businesses as soon as this weekend, even ones like salons and massage parlors that require close contact.

“I think it’s a mistake what some states are doing without the testing capacity,” Walz said. “States in the bottom five, some of those states like Texas are talking about opening up. I don’t know how they have a site picture on what they have. Unfortunately I think we’re going to learn a lot from that experiment. Fortunate I guess for us but I think it’s gonna come at a real cost.”

Walz did not specify how this affects the May 4 end of the stay at home order, but he has continually emphasized a gradual reopening along with social distance. The testing, isolating, contract tracing and data gathering are how Minnesota will get there.

 

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