Federal, state agencies work to ramp up COVID test availability as demand grows

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Demand continues to grow for COVID tests at sites across Minnesota.

“In the first two weeks, this first part of the month of January, our testing demand has doubled compared to the same time period in the first part of December,” said Dr. Kate Hust, the medical director for Hennepin Healthcare’s internal medicine clinic. “Appointments are filling up as fast as we can open them.”

To help the surge, Governor Tim Walz announced this week the state will spend 40 million dollars on rapid tests for Minnesotans. The state is also opening three additional community testing sites.

“We asked the federal government, FEMA to help us with another site for testing,” said Walz.

The additional demand for tests has strained resources, especially in rural areas.

“CentraCare, we work within central Minnesota, western, southwestern Minnesota through many rural communities where there aren’t a lot of other state-based testing sites," said Dr. George Morris, the physician incident commander for CentraCare’s COIVD-19 response. “In our region, the testing centers are really medical system-based.”

Dr. Morris said during the fall, the system was doing about 8,000 tests per week. The number has jumped to 12,000 tests per week.

On Friday, CentraCare and Carris Health decided to pause testing for those who are asymptomatic, including people seeking tests to go back to school, work, daycare or for travel.

“There is an extreme demand for testing, it has gone beyond what we can supply to our communities,” said Dr. Morris. “We do some testing on-site in our area, but even where we send our labs, they cannot keep up with the capacity or the demand.”

He added, “As a health system our priority is to our patients and by that I mean people that are sick, people with symptoms, people where a test result is going to change our clinical management.”

A federal program is expected to ease the burden on providers. Starting Wednesday, Americans can order up to four free tests per household at COVIDTests.gov. Shipping is also free.

The White House estimates the tests will typically ship through USPS within seven to 12 days of ordering.

“I think that at this point any increase in capacity for testing is important, said Dr. Hust. “I think that the biggest thing right now is for people to get a test in a way that works.”

Both doctors agree testing is just one piece of the fight against COVID-19.

“As much as testing is important right now to help us identify those who may have COVID and help to quell that spread, it’s equally important to get vaccinated and get your boosters,” said Dr. Hust.

Dr. Morris told us they are working to educate communities through engagement sessions since vaccination rates are still at about 50 percent within the areas CentraCare serves.

“This is not a one or another,” said Dr. Morris. “We are looking at testing as part of the strategy, we also need masking, we also need appropriate quarantining and social distancing.”