A plan of attack in the fight against the new coronavirus is being filtered to every major hospital system in Minnesota and within a few weeks there should be an ability to test anyone in the state who is experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.
Minnesota has the capacity to test 8,000 people for the virus as of today, and over the coming weeks it will be expanded to 20,000-a-day with the aid of the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota.
This is part of "Phase 1" for rolling out the tests as explained at Wednesday's press conference by Gov. Tim Walz, Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm, Dean of the University of Minnesota Medical School Jakub Tolar, and President of Mayo Clinic Laboratories William Morice.
"This should take literally, 2-3 weeks, maybe less," said Dr. Tolar. "Speed is a essential ingredient in success. The faster we're going to do this, the better we're going to do."
HealthPartners CEO Andrea Walsh, also speaking at the conference, put the timeline a little longer at 3-4 weeks, during which the state and its partners will build up the logistics required to make the test accessible in every corner of the state.
Governor Tim Walz said the plan "should allow Minnesota to be testing at a rate higher than any place in the country and potentially the world," but warned that "none of this will matter if we don't continue to practice our social distancing."
But if carried out properly, the testing increase coupled with Minnesotans sticking to social distancing guidelines could lead the state down a path "that can lower the number of infections, ensure the hospital capacity is there for those that are most vulnerable and give us that path back to start opening more of our society," Walz added.
Who are the priority patients?
Vulnerable people who live in congregate settings like nursing homes or long-term care facilities, staff who serve those congregate residents, healthcare workers, people of color and American-Indian populations who are at a higher risk, workers from critical industries, and everyone linked to hot spots where the virus is circulating.
Those are the priority patients, but within weeks the state should have the capability to test virtually everyone who is symptomatic.
Furthermore, the goal is for every test to have a 24-hour turnaround, unlike some of the other tests deployed around the state where results have taken several days to arrive.
Where can you get a test?
"You can get the test at your regular source of care. Primary care clinics, all the places people would expect to go to get the care will get the care," said Malcolm.
But there will be a system in place that will require those with symptoms to call first rather than just showing up at their local doctor's office, so as to limit the risk of spread and so doctors can make the call on whether they need a test or not.
As said before, while testing will ramp up immediately, it will likely take a few weeks to become widely available across the state. This isn't just for the sake of convenience, but out of necessity that everyone can access testing close to where they live to limit the spread.
Tolar said that the University of Minnesota Medical School will make use of its network of family physicians who were trained at the U and who now work across the state.
"The medical school trains 70 percent of doctor in state, we have primary care and family doctors everywhere you look, we can deploy these tests in their direction, and everyone knows their local doctor," he said.
Previously, many symptomatic patients have been denied a test because the state's ability to process the test was hampered by supply chain issues in obtaining chemicals that detect the virus, swabs and personal protective equipment (PPE), among other things.
But the U of M and Mayo Clinic tests don't rely on the same materials that other tests do, so they don't have to be involved in the competition for supplies that has hampered the response to the COVID-19 response so far.
The state is also developing a website that will show where testing locations are located in addition to a call-in number that anyone will be able to call to help find precisely where a patient can go to get a test.
Still the beginning of the pandemic
While Wednesday's press conference revealed positive news, there was a dose of realism dealt by Dr. Osterholm, who was among those invited to speak by Gov. Walz.
"We are in the very first innings of this game, this is not going to get over with anytime soon," he said. "Less than 5 percent have been infected with this.
"This virus will not rest until at least 60-70 percent of our population have been infected and hopefully develop immunity, or until we develop a vaccine."
"We are going to have hard days ahead, very hard days. And we have to hang together," Osterholm added. "Testing is critical. It's gonna be done, it's gonna be done right."