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University of Minnesota working to ramp up testing to meet Gov. Walz 20,000 test per day goal

Callan Gray
Updated: May 12, 2020 11:01 PM
Created: May 12, 2020 10:48 PM

Gov. Tim Walz set a lofty goal on April 22, announcing a new partnership between the University of Minnesota, Mayo Clinic and Department of Health to perform 20,000 COVID-19 tests per day.

"This is not a state that is going to just 'get through' COVID," said Walz. "This is a state that's going to lead this nation and the world out of this."

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The number of tests has climbed every week. For the first time on Monday, over 5,000 tests were completed in one day.

"We are expecting and hoping that number will rise," said Jan Malcolm, MDH Commissioner. "We have additional capacity in the state that is not being used."

Still, they are only a quarter of the way to their goal.

We reached out to the University of Minnesota to ask about the timeline.

"The original goal was approximately four weeks after the agreement started," said Dr. Tim Schacker, the vice dean for the University's Medical School. "We have already ramped up production. I think we'll come pretty close to hitting the mark when the time comes."

"But there are some factors that are out of our control that we didn't appreciate at the time. Orders for equipment are being back-ordered for reasons we don't fully understand."

He said they are waiting for machines used to run the tests. 

"When we were doing that planning, we were assured that equipment was available; now it's delayed," said Schacker. "We're not quite sure when it's going to get here so we're making contingency plans to be able to keep up with the testing."

Difficulties getting supplies has been a problem since the onset of the crisis both on the state and federal level. In April, 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS reported on the shortage of reagents, a key chemical that tests rely on. In March, we told you about a shortage of test kits.
We asked Schacker why they are trying to achieve 20,000 tests per day.

"If you look at the groups of people that are at risk of COVID-19, there's a group that has symptoms and we can identify those people," he said. "Then there's a group that's infected that may not recognize the symptoms or may not have symptoms, they're called asymptomatic. They're the ones that we're really concerned about with respect to, in nursing homes, congregate care settings for example."

He said if one person is COVID positive at a nursing home, or prison, or shelter, they need to be able to test the others who live there quickly.

Additional capacity will also enable them to sample more people at hospitals, including healthcare workers. He said they also want to improve testing during contact tracing, which is the process of tracking down people who've been exposed.

"In factoring that all together, we thought that was probably the right number to shoot for," said Schacker. "I mean maybe we overestimated and won't be using that much capacity but I think we'll probably come close."

He said, right now, they can get test results within two to three hours for urgent cases and about 24 hours for all others. Samples that come in are divided between the University and Mayo Clinic, depending on who has the better capacity to handle them each day. 

"We want again to remind people with symptoms of COVID-19 that they can and should be getting," said Malcolm.

Through the partnership, the University and Mayo Clinic are also working on expanding antibody testing. Their goal is to achieve 15,000 tests per day.

According to Schacker, the University developed its own serology test, which has been "vigorously validated." He said not all of the tests are as reliable. 

"A lot of places built a lot of tests and put them out there without a lot of confirmation that they actually work," he said. "When this is all over and we come back and say how many of those tests didn't work, it'll be a big, big number is my guess."

The tests are recommended for those whose symptoms started 12 to 14 days before having the test done.


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