MINNEAPOLIS -- The University of Minnesota announced Thursday, April 16 it has developed its own diagnostic and antibody tests for coronavirus. It stands ready to scale up to 10,000 tests a day within the state for each, and says that it will be unimpeded in this effort by global supply chain shortages that have hindered mass-testing in states from across the country and globally as well.
"We were pretty determined to build a platform of tests that would keep us independent of supply chain issues," said Dr. Timothy Schacker, vice dean for research of the University of Minnesota Medical School. "We knew there were going to be shortages of reagents and assays. Both of our tests were designed and developed at the U. They've been validated to federal standards, and they are up and running clinically now."
The university now awaits news of whether the Legislature will approve $20 million in funding as proposed Thursday by Sen. Carla Nelson of Rochester, enabling the university and Mayo Clinic to quickly scale up as needed to test potentially millions of Minnesotans for the illness and its antibodies.
With funds in hand, Schacker believes the U of M could begin mass-testing across the state within 10 to 14 days.
"We're ready and willing to meet the needs of the people of Minnesota," Schacker said.
The announcement follows surprise news earlier in the week of a similar outsized laboratory capacity on the part of Mayo Clinic, and reframes the recent determination by Gov. Tim Walz that the state would need to be able to run 5,000 tests a day in order to safely reopen the economy at the end of the stay-at-home extension in early May.
At the time, Walz called the proposal "a moon shot" and "a heavy lift," and with good reason. Currently, the state combined with private labs have never carried out more than 1,883 tests in a single day. Together, the twin proposals from the U of M and Mayo put the state on an entirely different footing, one capable of nearly 40,000 daily tests, putting an end to any confusion as to whether the once-imposing 5,000 tests a day benchmark lies within reach.
In a release, the university depicts its statewide network of fully-staffed branch campuses and health facilities as ideal for quickly delivering tests throughout the state. In a further measure of security, Schacker says the school's design and engineering departments have developed a system for delivering campus-generated masks, testing portals that conserve PPE and even swabs if necessary.
"I cannot tell you how much our faculty has pitched in across multiple schools and brought this amazing expertise to the problem," Schacker said. "People are working around the clock. This is what we do at the U. It's really inspiring to be around these people."
A question that remains once the testing floodgates do open is who exactly would get the tests? Until now, testing has been reserved for select persons at higher risk, leaving untold hundreds of thousands of residents of the state to bear symptoms of illness without an ability to learn if they have COVID-19 -- or already had it, and are likely now immune.
"We have our health care workers and our patients to take care of," Schacker said. "If the Legislature funds us, we're a land grant institution, we've got commitments to the state, and will follow their priorities, which are exactly in line with what we think is important."
On a call with reporters Thursday, state health commissioner Jan Malcolm said "we welcome the rapid expansion of testing," noting that "Hennepin Healthcare, Healthpartners and Essentia in addition to Mayo have their own testing capabilities. So we've been trying to look at a coordinated statewide strategy to take advantage of this capacity.'
"We'd like to see testing as close to the point of care as it can be," Malcolm said, "and that everybody that needs a test can get a test."
But the state still has a sizable backlog of patients meeting its early criteria before it begin testing those with no symptoms, said state director of infectious disease Kris Ehresmann.
"While we're not testing asymptomatic individuals at this point, we recognize the potential of transmission before someone is symptomatic. As we move further along, and capacity increases, those will all be goals. Right now we aren't able to test all the folks who are symptomatic, so we're starting with symptomatic individuals."
Also on Thursday, the state added seven deaths and 103 lab-confirmed cases, bringing the state death total to 94. Six of the new deaths were recorded in Hennepin County and one in Ramsey County.
With the new cases, the state now has 1,912 confirmed cases of coronavirus, although the real case count is believed to be vastly higher than that due to testing shortages up until now.
Intensive care unit use jumped by 10 on Thursday to 103, as well, pressing a critical metric upward for a state with just over 300 ICU beds remaining before rolling out emergency triage centers.
Finally, eight congregate living centers reported a case of coronavirus within their facility for the first time. One of the centers, Cerenity Senior Care Humboldt, is in Ramsey County. Five are in Hennepin County: Minnesota Masonic Home Care, Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge, Minnesota Veterans Home Minneapolis, Wealshire of Medina, and Wellstead of Rogers.
Meeker Manor Rehabilitation Center in Meeker County reported its first case, and in Olmsted County, Charter House has reported its first case as well.
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Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 hotline: 651-201-3920.
COVID-19 discrimination hotline: 833-454-0148
Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 website: Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) website.