Coronavirus Daily Briefing: Walz calls efforts to increase testing capability in Minnesota ‘great first step’ in fighting virus

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Wednesday, members of a workgroup consisting of state leaders announced new statewide testing strategies to help control the COVID-19 pandemic in the state.

During a news conference, Gov. Tim Walz said representatives of the state’s health care systems, Mayo Clinic, and the University of Minnesota have worked at building the capacity to test as many as 20,000 Minnesotans per day.

This breakthrough for rapid, widespread testing, Walz said, will help control the pandemic and support safely reopening society.

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Walz called increased testing capability as one tool in the toolbox, reminding Minnesotans of the importance of continuing social distancing among other measures to keep the number of virus infections as low as possible.

Minnesota is "not a state that will just get through, this is a state that will lead the world out of this," Walz said during the news conference.

Testing goals

Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the workgroup has facilitated the agreement among major hospital systems and the state to work as a cohesive whole.

Moving forward, Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota are collaborating on creating a central lab, as well as building a virtual command center in coordination with MDH and health systems to manage daily testing. This central lab will also conduct analytic research to better understand the virus.

Who would help conduct those tests and research as efforts increase? Malcolm said there are a lot of students in public health, nursing and pharmacology that health officials are hoping they can train up to join the workforce.

Malcolm said another goal is to ensure the testing of all symptomatic Minnesotans.

She described the need to conduct both Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) testing and serologic antibody testing. Malcolm said there’s also the need to understand the differences between the tests to target the response and to understand what to then do with the test results.

Additionally, Malcolm highlighted the importance of reducing cost barriers so all Minnesotans are able to be tested.

To help with the goal of ensuring all Minnesotans can be tested, Malcolm mentioned health care systems are now expected to take testing samples from patients, and a website to show all testing locations as well as a hotline are being developed.

According to Malcolm, the workgroup is planning to use $36 million from the legislature’s COVID-19 fund to help cover the costs of those goals. Malcolm said there is also the hope of utilizing federal funding for those goals.

Malcolm said after the three to four weeks "phase one"—which includes building supplies and coordinating logistics as described above—is expected to take, "phase two" is expected to consist of plans to use the system currently being developed statewide.

How increased testing helps in virus response

Increased testing allows for health leaders to better understand the interaction between cells and the virus itself, Dr. Jakub Tolar, dean of the University of Minnesota Medical School, said.

From that research, Tolar said health officials have been able to develop antibody testing, scale that up and use it across the state.

Meanwhile, Andrea Walsh—president and CEO of HealthPartners—said that in order to do more in terms of virus response, expanded testing is needed, including frequent testing of health care workers.

Walsh said a challenge has been inadequate lab capacity, that health care systems could collect more samples than could be tested. Now, the state is figuring out how to better work the supply chain, ramp up collection and process these tests.

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Dr. William Morice—president of Mayo Clinic Laboratories—said an important task the workgroup faces is to "restore public confidence in their safety and get rid of fear."

Effect of increased testing on state outlook

When asked whether increased testing could affect decisions on ‘stay at home’ orders, business and school operations, and other aspects of daily life in Minnesota, Walz said it would be a mistake to reopen without testing capacity.

He added that increased testing capability would play a role in decision-making, as state leaders continue to learn lessons in the midst of the pandemic.

"We are in the very first innings of this game," Dr. Michael Osterholm—regents professor and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota—said earlier in the news conference. "This is not going to get over with anytime soon."

So far, Osterholm said less than 5% of the state’s population has been infected by the virus.

"This virus will not rest until at least 60-70% of our population has either been infected, and then hopefully develop immunity, or we have a vaccine," he said.

Therefore, Osterholm said to deal with "this virus which is going to be with us for some time," social distancing measures are important and testing is critical, particularly testing that is done efficiently and correctly.

"We will have hard days ahead and we have to hang together," Osterholm said.

In his final comments, Walz equated the state’s progress to a mission into space.

"The ship is on the launchpad today; it has been built by the best engineers, it is staffed by the best astronauts that we have, and it’s ready to go but there’s a lot of work yet to get it there," Walz said, adding that the breakthroughs announced Wednesday are "a great first step."