ST. PAUL — Minnesota is about to become the first state in the nation to test every person with the symptoms of coronavirus.
In a joint show of cooperation following agreements executed earlier that morning, Gov. Tim Walz and state health officials announced Wednesday, April 22 a $36 million alliance linking the Minnesota Department of Health, the Mayo Clinic, the University of Minnesota and the state's leading health systems in a program to offer free, speedy testing for coronavirus to all who need it.
The initiative will also make extensive use of antibody testing to determine the spread of the illness in the state.
"This partnership we are announcing today with the Mayo Clinic, the University of Minnesota, and the state's healthcare systems launches a strategy to test all symptomatic people, isolate confirmed cases, and expand public health surveillance throughout greater Minnesota, " Walz said during a news conference attended by heads of Mayo Clinic Laboratories, the U of M Medical School and HealthPartners. "The partnership will have the capacity to test 20,000 Minnesotans per day."
Under the agreement, Walz said, Mayo and the U in conjunction with state and county health programs will participate in coordinated statewide contact tracing, the identification of emerging hot spots for intervention, and collection of data on prevalence and the geographic distribution of the illness including barriers to care.
"I said at the beginning that this was a moonshot," Walz said, "Well, the ship is on the launch pad. This is not a state that's just going to get through COVID-19, this is a state that's going to lead the nation out of this. The plan we have put in place should allow Minnesota to conduct more testing than any place else in the country, and potentially the world."
As a practical matter, the new agreement places the state's central lab in the hands of Mayo and the U of M, creating a so-called virtual command center to centralize the statewide flow of testing materials outward from the two medical powerhouses, returning samples for speedy analysis in state, and utilizing the University of Minnesota's extensive statewide presence to reach the farthest corners of the state.
"We're removing any confusion about who needs to be tested," said state health commissioner Jan Malcolm. "We're saying that every symptomatic person gets tested, with additional stress on the intensive testing of vulnerable populations and the staff that serve them. You can get the test at your regular source of care."
Malcolm said that the state is building a website to show residents where testing locations will be, with a number to call to ensure that they can get in quickly.
"I would be kidding if I said that happens tomorrow," Malcolm said, noting that the first phase of the project will use $36 million in previously-allotted COVID-19 state funding over the next three to four weeks "to build supply, work out the logistics, and get things moving."
"It's a big deal," Malcolm said. "We're standing behind the health systems to assure them that if they collect those samples, they'll get processed. It's our job to get the finances out of the way in order to support the local care systems closest to those outbreaks, and to create access for a team from the U or Mayo to quickly supplement that activity."
"A (diagnostic) coronavirus test is simple," said Dr. Jakub Tolar, dean of the University of Minnesota Medical School. "What is not simple is the logistics — how many hundreds of testing stations do we set up across the metro? How are we going to get it in place for tribal nations and residents of the outstate?"
Tolar said he was optimistic. "This should take two to three weeks, maybe less."
Malcolm said the health department already has an effort underway to build the staff for contact tracing on all those who test positive, a number that is expected to soar as testing goes into high volume.
"The state health department started with 20 contact tracers and now we have 100. Local public health is a big key to this, and we are also working with the school of public health at the University of Minnesota. They have a lot of public health students and student nurses we hope to train up."
"Demand for testing is incredibly high," said HealthPartners CEO Andrea Walsh, "but the lab capacity has been inadequate — we could collect far more samples than we could ever process." For Mayo Clinic, erasing those capacity and speed of return problems are the barriers it plans to tackle first.
"This partnership is important because other healthcare systems have the footprint across the state and we have a logistical network that can turn around most of your tests in under 24 hours," said Dr. William Morice II, president of Mayo Clinic Laboratories. "We believe we can harness that for the state, including applying what we know about how to scale these operations."
Expanded testing has been a goal of health officials from the beginning of the outbreak, but the state's patchwork of public and private health systems have faced shortages of test kits and formal guidance to reserve materials for prioritized groups of at-risk persons and professions.
The issue intensified two weeks ago, when Walz said the economy could not reopen without the means to test 5,000 persons a day. Soon both Mayo and the University of Minnesota had created the capacity to test tens of thousands of patients daily, but in the days that followed the state's test numbers continued to remain flat.
The agreement puts an end to a crisis in which the state possessed the capacity to test everyone for coronavirus, but no centralized mechanism for uniting the task in a singular system.
"None of this will matter if we do not continue to practice the social distancing that made Minnesota flatten the curve," said Walz. "This is not a pass that says everything goes back to normal. It is one tool in a tool box. If we do the work that's necessary, we've got a path to start opening our society so people can do what they need to do."
The state posted another single-day record for deaths from coronavirus on Wednesday. Nineteen fatalities were reported, all but one in Hennepin County.
The lone outstate mortality was recorded in Nobles County, which recorded another 25 cases on Wednesday, and which has gained nearly all of its 126 confirmed cases in less than one week.
Dana Ferguson of Forum News Service contributed to this report. As a public service, we’ve opened this article to everyone regardless of subscription status. If this coverage is important to you, please consider supporting local journalism by clicking on the subscribe button in the upper right-hand corner of the homepage.
Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 hotline: 651-201-3920.
COVID-19 discrimination hotline: 833-454-0148
Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 website: Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) website.