Coronavirus Daily Briefing: State health officials discuss expanded testing, reopening state

During the state’s daily COVID-19 briefing Thursday, officials with the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) continued to discuss testing for the virus and the potential to reopen the state.

While Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz is usually involved in the briefing, he was absent due to a scheduled conference call with President Donald Trump.

During the call, MDH Commissioner Jan Malcolm and Kris Ehresmann, director of Infectious Diseases for MDH, were asked about the University of Minnesota’s proposed plan to expand testing in the state.

U of M issues proposal to ramp up COVID-19 testing options in the state, requests $20M

According to the proposal, university researchers want to conduct Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) testing and serologic antibody testing "to identify people who can safely go back to work." PCR testing is done on swabs of the nose collected from those who may be contagious with COVID-19. Serologic antibody testing is a blood test to detect certain antibodies to COVID-19.

The proposal also requesting $20 million so the state is able to increase its testing capacity to "approximately 10,000 antibody and 10,000 PCR tests per day."

Malcolm said she has yet to see the details of the proposal but said she welcomes expanding testing in the state.

"The priority is that everybody that needs a test can get a test," Malcolm said. "We need to focus on symptomatic folks. As you know, we have a priority list for some time that we’ve been unable to reach all the priority groups, so we welcome the rapid expansion of testing."

The health officials were also asked about their confidence in the tests that were proposed by the university.

Malcolm said while she can’t speak to the validity of the specific tests in question, it’s important for health care officials in the state to make sure that tests that are coming out on the market are reliable.

Ehresmann also spoke briefly about the possibility of testing individuals who are not exhibiting symptoms as a way to combat the asymptomatic spread of the virus.

"I think as we move further along in this pandemic, and as our testing capacity increases, those will all be goals that we have," Ehresmann said. "But right now, we aren’t even able to test all the folks that are symptomatic."

Questions were also asked about the potential of being able to reopen the state as the governor continues to receive criticisms for his ‘stay at home’ order, including protests at the Governor’s Residence.

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Malcolm reiterated what Walz has said, saying state officials need to look at where Minnesota is at in the pandemic, how safe it is for residents to resume moving around the community and what degree of community spread remains.

Ehresmann said that one of the goals of social distancing and the governor’s order was to prepare the health care infrastructure for an influx of patients.

"Not only do we want plans in place so that people can safely return to activities, but we want to know that we were able to use the time to shore up our health care system," Ehresmann said.

On Thursday, MDH reported 103 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the state’s total to 1,912. Seven more deaths were reported on Thursday as well; so far 94 Minnesotans have died from the virus.

A total of 1,020 patients have recovered and no longer need isolation.

According to the Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering, the virus has infected about 2,069,819 people worldwide and killed 137,193.

About 517,931 people have recovered from the virus.