Governor Tim Walz says the state needs to be testing 5,000 people per day for COVID-19 before he'll deem it safe to reopen Minnesota's economy, and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester says it already has the capacity and key testing supplies to fulfill that need.
A spokesperson for Mayo Clinic tells Bring Me The News that they "have the current capacity to do 10,000 serology tests per day, and 7,000 molecular tests per day." Their goal is "ramp up capacity to provide 20,000 serology tests per day if the demand is there."
A molecular test is done via nasal or throat swab and can diagnose if a person currently has COVID-19. The serology test is a blood test that can find the presence of antibodies to the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), indicating that a person was previously infected.
Testing positive for antibodies could be a critical factor in getting people back to work, under the assumption that they have some level of immunity and are no longer a threat for asymptomatic transmission of the virus.
But Mayo Clinic notes that a serology test "needs to be done a minimum of 11-14 days after the patient is symptomatic" because testing before then could give a false negative.
Meanwhile ramping up diagnostic tests will assist the state's efforts in isolating infected people and those they've been in contact with to prevent further spread.
More than 450,000 members of Minnesota's workforce have applied for unemployment insurance since March 16. That's more than double the 219,000 Minnesotans who filed for unemployment in all of 2019.
Mayo Clinic's Dr. William Morice told the Post Bulletin that it's working with the state government to discuss ways how it can help provide the testing Minnesota needs
If mass testing does come to fruition, Walz said he hopes the federal government doesn't utilize the Defense Production Act to force Mayo Clinic or other test makers to provide those resources to other parts of the country, where there are limitations in testing supplies, including the key chemicals – called reagents – that detect the virus.
"I certainly hope not," Walz said, adding that mass testing capability will help Minnesota immensely during this initial wave and any future waves during the pandemic.
"When it comes back again, which it will until we get a vaccine, if we have this regimen in place and we have that depth to do it ourselves, it will not be nearly as disruptive next time because we will simply just test, isolate and keep people out as the rest of us continue to go about our business," he said.
It should also noted that another thing Walz says needs to be in place before he can end the shutdown is adequate personal protective equipment for state health workers.
The antibody testing (serology test) could provide a lift to an already stressed healthcare system. For example, if a doctor or nurse know that they previously carried the virus, they could can take care of patients, possibly without certain protective gear.
Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said Tuesday that a reason some healthcare providers are denying patients with COVID-19 symptoms a test is due to a dwindling supply of personal protective equipment (PPE).
"There's all kinds of legitimate reasons why the providers have said, well we'd love to test more people but we really need to test only the highest-priority people in order to conserve PPE," said Malcolm.
If testing that meets Walz's 5,000/day goal is made available, it's still believed that businesses will have to gradually return to normal rather than immediately begin operating the way they did prior to the outbreak.
"I do want to remind folks, it's not going to immediately look like it did before," said Walz. "I get it. I wish we could stop this today. I wish I could say it's magically over and we can all go back to work, we can all go down to the restaurant or whatever. But that will kill people, and it will in the long run hurt our economy at the same time."
Walz used restaurants as an example during his media briefing on Tuesday, saying it's possible that when they're allowed to reopen they might have to do so with fewer tables.
Malcolm also noted that for now the antibody test is relatively new and it's not known at this stage how robust the tests are, with the Mayo itself noting it doesn't diagnose recent or active infection, and "cannot pinpoint the date of the exposure."
"There still needs to be real care taken to assess the accuracy and the validity of each of them and our understanding is there is a pretty wide range in the reliability in these tests," Malcolm said.
"We are going to want to caution Minnesotans, there's going to be a lot of stuff on the market and we're going to want to apply some really good science and careful validation to make sure we're using things that have as high a rate of reliability as we can get."
M Health Fairview also started offering the antibody test at Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul this week.