Gov. Walz, Mayo Clinic, U announce deal to test 20,000 Minnesotans daily

By: - April 22, 2020 1:45 pm

Gov. Tim Walz

Gov. Tim Walz announced a strategy Wednesday to test up to 20,000 Minnesotans daily for COVID-19, dramatically ramping up the state’s capacity in an effort to get a clearer picture of the pandemic.

The joint effort with the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota will test for active infections, as well as people who have recovered and have coronavirus antibodies. 

“The increased testing and tracing will help us improve our control of the pandemic and help us think about those strategies to start reopening our society,” Walz said. 

The improved testing capacity will play a major role in the administration’s plans for a phased re-opening of the economy. Previously, Walz said the state would need to conduct at least 40,000 tests per week to safely re-open the economy. With wider diagnostics, officials can trace and isolate coronavirus cases to reduce its spread throughout the state.

In recent weeks, Walz said his administration’s top priority is improving testing capacity, which has been hampered by shortages of personal protective equipment and testing materials. To date, Minnesota has been able to test fewer than 50,000 people, prioritizing health care workers, hospitalized patients and people in long-term care facilities. 

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said health care providers will be able to test all Minnesotans experiencing symptoms. 

“We’ve not been able to test every symptomatic person for some time,” she said, explaining that testing had been hampered by a patchwork of health care systems. 

The testing will cost $36 million for now, with the money coming from a recently approved legislative package.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said the plan would help Minnesotans get back to work. 

“Testing is important not just to the physical health of our citizens, it’s vitally important to the health of the economy,” Gazelka said. “I’m confident this partnership will bring us closer to reopening small and local businesses that so desperately want to get back to work.”

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, also praised the development.

“Expanding Minnesota’s ability to test for COVID-19 is a critical step in protecting our health and getting Minnesotans back to work,” Hortman said in a statement. “The expanded contact tracing is also important. It’s essential for Minnesota’s leaders to be guided by science and public health expertise in their decision-making.”

Health officials said the testing will vastly improve the state’s surveillance system, helping officials identify emerging COVID-19 hot spots.

The expanded testing will focus on vulnerable populations, including Minnesotans living in congregate settings and those experiencing homelessness, as well as staff and health care workers that serve these populations; communities of color and Native American populations; and workforce for critical infrastructure, like meat packing employees.

Minnesota is currently seeing higher rates of COVID-19 infections in congregate-care settings like nursing homes, as well as workplaces like the JBS pork processing plant in Worthington. 

In a rapidly unfolding situation, JBS USA said Monday it would indefinitely close the 2,000-employee pork processing plant. Just three days before, officials announced the first lab-confirmed COVID-19 infections at the plant. 

The Worthington hot spot could have an impact on the local economy, rural health systems of southwest Minnesota — and the nation’s food supply.

Meat packing plants are under strain as hundreds of workers across the country who process beef, poultry and pork livestock fall ill to COVID-19. More than 2,200 U.S. meat packing employees have contracted COVID-19, and 17 have died, according to an investigation from USA Today and the Midwestern Center for Investigative Reporting.

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Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez

Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.

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