The Mayo Clinic currently has the capacity to run 7,000 diagnostic COVID-19 tests and 10,000 antibody tests per day. It's the kind of mass testing that Governor Tim Walz needs in order to begin returning Minnesotans to the workforce.
The big question is when the 5,000 tests per day Walz wants will start happening, and who gets priority to be tested? Some answers to those questions were provided during Wednesday's daily COVID-19 media briefing.
For starters, the people who are considered highest priority for COVID-19 diagnostic testing remains the same. Those with priority are patients in the hospital, healthcare workers, residents of long-term care facilities like nursing homes, people in homeless shelters, child care staff, first responders, police, firefighters and other law enforcement.
The priority for the serology tests, which can identify if someone has antibodies suggesting they have previously been exposed to the virus, would be expanded from the aforementioned high-priority groups, although that criteria hasn't been formalized publicly.
Without naming any specific businesses, Walz said that an entire workforce could be tested and allowed back to work while maintaining social distancing, decontaminating production facilities, taking employee temperatures as they come and go, and managing the results through software programs.
"Should we get someone who develops symptoms, we should be able to quickly test them, quickly trace who they had contact with and isolate those people," the governor said. "We don't have to shut down everything. We don't have to shut down everybody."
Minnesota will likely have to "go it alone," according to Walz, who said President Trump "made that very clear yesterday that the states are responsible for this." Walz is optimistic that Minnesota has enough firepower to find solutions to battling the disease.
"Until we get a vaccine, we're going to have to identify who's sick and we think it's possible to identify who had this," he said, adding that a ramp up in both molecular and serological testing will help in three ways.
- By identifying who might be immune because they were already infected.
- Identifying patients who tested positive and are now symptom-free.
- By giving the state the resources to test, trace and isolate to avoid hot spots, like Smithfield Farms in Sioux Falls, where the plant shut down after dozens of employees tested positive for COVID-19.
But Walz warned that "all of the sacrifice that we made could be eaten up very quickly" if they aren't smart about reopening the state's economy.
"We were worse than Louisiana at one point, in quickness to 100 cases," he said. "Now they have blown up and gone off. Minnesota has been able to stay where we are because we're doing these things right."
As of Wednesday, there have been 1,809 confirmed cases and 89 deaths in Minnesota. In Louisiana, a state with approximately 1 million fewer residents than Minnesota, there have been 21,951 laboratory-confirmed tests and 1,103 deaths.
Thus far, Minnesotans have helped control the outbreak, and the plan is to use increased testing capabilities to maintain control as people get back to work.
"We're going to have a very science-based, strategic plan on when we get ready to start to move folks back into the workforce safely," Walz said. "I want to start seeing pretty significant results within the next week or so."
M Health Fairview reveals antibody testing plan
One of the health providers that announced it will start antibody testing this week, M Health Fairview, has revealed more on its plans.
It says the first phase of testing at Bethesda Hospital – a COVID-19-only facility – will be focused on Bethesda's frontline healthcare workers.
After that, the results from the test will be used to inform further study on the "epidemiology of and antibody response to COVID-19," and part of that will see the tests made available to staff across the entire M Health Fairview system.
Phase 3 will then see it rolled out for the general population, with clinicians deciding if their patients need one.