Governor wants 5,000 COVID-19 tests a day, but one major issue is getting in the way

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Gov. Tim Walz called it a moon shot, but he made his goal clear on Monday.

“We need to be doing 5,000 tests a day,” he said during the daily conference call with reporters.

On a good day, state and private labs process about a quarter of that lofty goal. And it still puts Minnesota in roughly the middle of the pack when it comes to COVID-19 testing.

But it is not nearly enough.

The governor, public health officials and economists are all calling for more coronavirus testing. Yet more than a month after Minnesota’s first positive case, a symptomatic patient would be considered lucky to get tested.

Dr. Michael Osterholm, a COVID-19 expert at the University of Minnesota, said the hangup is not about money or manpower.

“Supply chains,” he said. “People just don’t understand the supply chain today.”

Osterholm said the main issue is with chemicals, or what are known as reagents in science and medical circles.

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Reagents are the key substance all COVID-19 tests rely on. The chemicals are needed to transport swabs to the lab and to ultimately find out if it is positive or negative.

During a global pandemic, the supply chain cannot adequately support worldwide testing of eight billion people.

“Reagents for testing were kind of filled through a garden hose worldwide and then Wuhan came along and they had to step it up to, frankly, a firehouse,” Osterholm said.  "And now that the entire world is on fire and the entire world wants to test. We need a canal of reagents.”

The supply chain starts at the federal Centers for Disease Control, which runs the International Reagent Resource and then flows to the states. 

But the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) said it is not getting what it is asking for since the CDC is currently shipping most of the reagents to hot spots like New York and Washington.

“It’s extremely frustrating because we have the manpower to do more than we can do but our hands are tied,” said Moe Sullivan, Emergency Response Coordinator at MDH.

Sullivan spends most of her days on the phone with reagent manufacturers overseas who are now transforming plants in the United States to ramp up production.

“It’s not going to help us right now, but it should help us continuing to ramp up testing as we move forward,” she said.

When asked about when Minnesota may be able to reach the point of wide-scale testing that the governor is calling for, Sullivan described it as a crystal ball.

“I think we are every day getting a little bit steadier and stabler, and there are more people coming on with different tests. But I think we’re a little ways away,” she said.

The gap in the supply chain is one of the reasons why Walz and other officials have been leaning on the so-called antibody test.

The test uses a finger prick of blood to determine if the patient has been exposed to the virus and has possibly built up immunity. But it does not say whether the person is positive for the virus in the moment.

Health officials are still trying to figure out the best approach — and the best combination — of the two tests before the state can open back up for business.