Updated: November 09, 2020 10:12 PM
Created: November 09, 2020 05:45 AM
Monday, Gov. Tim Walz announced there will be more than a dozen new COVID-19 testing sites opening throughout the state in the next two weeks.
The sites will continue to offer free, "no barrier" COVID-19 testing to anyone who wants to be tested, whether they have symptoms or not, and visits will not require insurance.
Walz made the announcement at the Minneapolis Convention Center where the state's eighth COVID-19 saliva test site opens Monday.
New test sites
According to Walz, the expanded testing sites include 11 operated by the Minnesota National Guard that will remain open through the end of the year. Those sites, opening Nov. 16, will offer both saliva and nasal PCR tests. Ten of the 11 sites will be located in armories and those locations are expected to be released later this week. They will be open five days a week and are expected to replace the pop-up community testing events that have recently been taking place.
Meanwhile, a ninth site will open Thursday at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. That site, which will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week, will offer saliva tests.
Rising COVID-19 cases
"Over the last week, Minnesotans saw our COVID-19 positivity rate climb higher than ever before," Walz said in a statement. "We have entered a dangerous phase of this pandemic, and our testing strategy is key to controlling the spread. So many people are spreading the virus before they know they have it. That's why we've seen great demand for testing across the state, and today's announcement brings us closer to getting the virus under control."
Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the state's seven-day average test positivity rate is up to 9.8%. She added that MDH knows it will soon exceed 10% and has already in many pockets of the state.
Malcolm said the growth of COVID-19 cases in Minnesota is "very concerning," and that "growing and diversifying our testing options in combination with all Minnesotans doing their part to practice social distancing, wear masks, wash their hands, avoid large gatherings, and stay home when sick is what will help us turn things around in our state."
Malcolm also noted that Minnesota's 10,000 new cases reported over the weekend were on a volume of 90,000 tests. She noted that testing is very important but it only helps if people are following the guidelines and their test results, meaning they stay home and quarantine until test results come back and are negative. She said MDH has heard of people not quarantining after getting a test and not quarantining even after positive test results because they didn't have symptoms.
Test site success and testing efforts
According to health officials, the state's existing saliva test sites have been successful, testing tens of thousands of Minnesotans. Officials report 50,000 people were tested in one day alone.
Not only is the test less intense, but the sites were created to get as many people tested as possible. 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS connected with a few people who took a saliva test who said the test was quick and easy.
"It's just a peace of mind kind of thing," Tom Weaver, who got a test, said. "You can go about your life letting people know, that way everybody is in the know, the best information is available, and they can make decisions appropriately. Really quick and easy, if you have symptoms come and get tested, it's not tough."
Health officials say the increase in testing is needed to help people find out if they have COVID-19 and help the Minnesota Department of Health track, trace, and find asymptomatic people to prevent more spreading.
Malcolm also said MDH is testing an application and has a pilot program operating currently that could contact trace by using people's cellphone data.
Walz said the program would keep people's information private and would be voluntary but could give the state another significant tool to battle the spread of the virus. The app would allow someone who is positive to notify close contacts at the touch of a button that someone they were around tested positive and urge those close contacts to get tested. Malcolm said they'll hopefully be able to roll it out to the state in a matter of weeks.
Walz said VaultHealth's approach gives the state the opportunity to keep expanding its testing capacity, saying the state will likely have to people able to process more than 100,000 tests per day in the future. He said the decision to have a lab in-state to process test results also gives the state a "massive advantage" over other states because Minnesotans don't have to have their test samples sent to another state for processing, which means the results are also returned faster.
Walz said that taking any longer than 48 hours to get test results to Minnesotans is too long because people can't or won't quarantine longer than that while waiting for results, which then defeats the purpose of testing. Because of the quick turnaround time, he urged all Minnesotans to take advantage of Minnesota's testing capacity and get tested.
Future prevention plans
On Monday, Walz did not indicate that another stay-at-home order is immediately on the horizon, though he did say it's something state leaders have to consider, particularly if concentrated efforts aren't effective.
Giving an example of the spread of COVID-19 via social gatherings and groups, Walz said, "it makes sense to us, now, to target those much more surgically, much more aggressively, than a statewide stay-at-home order because, at this point in time, we've learned that we can do retail, we can do education, some of it in person, if we're able to test, contain and contact trace those folks to get it isolated."
Walz said the case rate is something state leaders have to continue to monitor and see how Minnesotans continue to respond to pleas to follow health guidelines. If necessary, dialing back is something he may do.
Walz said he and his administration have also talked with superintendents around the state to discuss how schools are dealing with COVID-19 and various learning methods. He said many were worried but reassured them that as long as communities are smart, they should be able to continue with hybrid/in-person learning.
He also called out all people for large gatherings, noting that COVID-19 doesn't care what event you're participating in or your political beliefs, specifically talking about people around the country gathering over the weekend after Joe Biden's and Kamala Harris' election victory and those who rushed the field after the University of Notre Dame's football win. Malcolm reiterated that large gatherings are dangerous.
Vaccine efforts and national strategy
Walz was asked about Pfizer's statement that its vaccine appears to be 90% effective, saying that getting the virus under control, getting a vaccine distributed and having the correct measures in place is how we get back to normal life and fully reopen the economy.
"You don't get that back through wishful thinking, attending large gatherings or ignoring health guidelines," he added.
Walz also welcomed the development of a new, national strategy.
Referencing a new coronavirus advisory board President-elect Joe Biden is implementing, Walz said, "I think it's an incredibly positive development that we have a national COVID strategy coming out, that Dr. Michael Osterholm is going to be a part of that, the names that are on there are people we've been listening to.
"Nothing will change with Minnesota's approach, we will take a data-driven, scientific approach to infectious disease control around COVID-19," Walz went on to say about Minnesota's response to the pandemic.
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