Walz addresses concerns over omicron surge, testing shortages

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State leaders are urging Minnesotans to be cautious amid the surge of COVID-19 cases caused by the omicron variant.

At a press conference highlighting the Minnesota National Guard’s role in helping long-term care facilities on Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Tim Walz and Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said the COVID-19 surge is already straining health care capacity and will likely worsen in the coming weeks.

"We have reason to hope 2022 is more like the year we hoped 2021 would be," Malcolm said, noting that vaccines, tests and masking are great tools to fight back against COVID-19.

However, she said the surge of omicron cases so quickly across the world is combining with already-strained capacity from the delta variant to pose problems for health care systems.

Malcolm and Walz urged Minnesotans to be mindful of the surge and closely monitor for symptoms — however light they may be — as well as get tested, isolate when sick, and get vaccinated and boosted if not already.

Walz noted the percentage of severe illnesses caused by the omicron variant appears to be lower than past variants but it spreads so fast that it is creating more cases than past variants, which still results in capacity issues for hospitals and long-term care facilities. That’s part of the reason he said the Minnesota National Guard’s work has been so important for the state.

Malcolm said 14 National Guard teams are currently in state facilities. Some have completed missions at their facilities but other facilities continue to request their help. Walz said he’s hopeful the 1,000 certified nursing assistants being trained in the state will be ready to help across the state by the end of the month so the National Guard can be deactivated soon.

Walz and Malcolm also addressed the high demand for COVID-19 tests after the holidays, noting it’s that way across the country. They said the supply of tests will likely be tight for a few weeks but urged Minnesotans to continue trying to get tested and monitoring for symptoms.

Malcolm also said the recent daily cap on tests by Vault Health may actually help the state because Minnesota rarely reached or surpassed Vault’s daily quota and other states may now have less available to them. The state also announced three new COVID-19 testing sites on Tuesday.

Malcolm said federal health officials are even having "very, very early conversations" about possibly prioritizing tests for certain areas based on how high the demand gets and the strength of the omicron surge.

As for recent news that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is shortening its isolation time for asymptomatic Americans, Malcolm noted the CDC actually hasn’t officially updated its guidance yet. She said the MDH will update its guidance to mirror the CDC’s when that change is made but, so far, that hasn’t happened. Walz also said he was frustrated the CDC announced that news before updating its guidance because it only confuses people.