Coronavirus: Lack of testing capacity still a cause for concern in Minnesota

Gov. Tim Walz sent a letter to Vice President Pence calling for additional tests.
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Minnesota officials are still dealing with a lack of testing kits for COVID-19, even though the number of patients being tested is on the rise.

On Saturday, the health department confirmed that there have been 868 COVID-19 tests conducted in Minnesota, with 21 positive cases.

However, the state still requires strict criteria for testing, with the majority of tests carried out on those who may have had exposure to the virus either through travel, or to someone who already has it.

Doctors are being given discretion to recommend patients for a coronavirus test, but nonetheless state leaders say there remains only limited capacity to receive and analyze samples from patients, with health officials saying earlier this week that they have had to use testing kits "judiciously."

On Friday, Gov. Tim Walz sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence – who is leading the federal government's response to the pandemic – calling for more help.

He noted that the state has had to "ration" the number of tests performed at the MDH public health lab, and wants there to be a more reliable supply chain to ensure that the state doesn't run out of kits or lab supplies required to take and analyze samples.

Here's an excerpt from the letter: 

"Minnesota, like other states, is deeply concerned about the availability of the testing kits, in addition to ancillary reagents and lab supplies needed to provide testing. There are a variety of components of a COVID-19 test. Kits alone are not enough; we need all necessary components to successfully test.

"I am calling upon you and your office to aid us in ensuring there is access to testing kits, and all the reagents and supplies needed to conduct, at a minimum, 15,000 tests per month.

"In addition, I urge you to work with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve 'research use only' chemicals to help address the supply chain shortages of reagents; and to fast track a rapid point of care test for COVID-19. We need to move the testing for coronavirus out of our laboratories and into our clinics."

The MDH said that Gov. Walz has not yet heard back from the vice president since he sent the letter on Friday.

On a Saturday media call, Kris Ehresmann, who heads the Minnesota Department of Health's infectious disease division, said that the MDH coronavirus hotline received 1,700 calls on Friday alone.

There was also a significant increase in the number of tests carried out Friday, with 313 patients sampled, which comes amid an increase in demand for tests as word of the coronavirus outbreak spreads.

Complicating the matter is that we're still at the tail-end of what has been a relatively serious flu season, the symptoms of which can be confused for coronavirus.

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Help is arriving in the form of private health facilities which are now conducting their own tests. The Mayo Clinic successfully created its own test and it was reported on Friday by the Star Tribune that it had tested 90 patients, none of whom were positive.

This is a good indication that at this stage, the coronavirus is not widespread in the community in Minnesota right now.

Ehresmann said that the testing figures shared on Saturday do not include the tests conducted by private facilities, which will take a little longer to arrive. They should be added to statewide testing numbers as they arrive however.

During his Friday press conference, President Donald Trump announced that the government would be rolling out drive-thru testing sites in the parking lots of stores including Walmart moving forward.

However, Ehresmann said that the department has received no information about these testing sites from the Trump Administration at this point.

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