ST. PAUL — Minnesota will soon start receiving on a weekly basis 47,000 nasopharyngeal swabs, which are used to collect secretion samples from the back of the nose and throat during COVID-19 testing.
Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said in a media call Friday, May 1 that it's a sign that the state's testing volume is rapidly increasing.
"We have our eyes on how to make sure we sustain that and continue to grow it to meet all of the testing goals that we've laid out in our testing strategy," Malcolm said.
The strategy that Gov. Tim Walz announced last week calls for up to 20,000 diagnostic tests to be performed daily and for everyone who's experiencing symptoms to be able to get tested relatively easily.
As testing continues to ramp up, so will daily numbers of new cases, Malcolm said, adding that it will allow the health department track down more virus "hot spots" to help stop the spread. The state is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other organizations to secure materials needed at both testing sites and in the laboratories.
About 18% of the people who have tested positive for the virus in Minnesota live in long-term care or assisted living facilities.
Kris Ehresmann, infectious disease director for MDH, said that as of Friday more than half of the 244 long-term care facilities across the state with at least one positive case have had only one or two confirmed cases of the virus. Twenty-one facilities have 20 or more known cases.
As testing increases, so does the likelihood of identifying more cases in long-term care facilities, which Ehresmann said are receiving more "focused testing."
"I want to keep acknowledging that there is additional spread beyond just what we're identifying," Ehresmann said. "Even though testing is ramping up and it's going to be identifying more cases than we've been able to do in the past when we couldn't test everyone, it's not going to cover every single case."
The Health Department on Friday reported that 594 additional Minnesotans had tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, and 28 more had died from the illness. In total, 5,730 have tested positive for the illness and 371 have died from the disease and its complications. Health officials note that the confirmed positive total significantly undercounts the number of Minnesotans who've contracted COVID-19.
The state reported 4,553 more Minnesotans were tested Thursday, the highest one-day increase to date, and a figure closer to Walz's goal of 5,000 a day. There have been 74,829 Minnesotans tested for COVID-19 so far.
There were 369 hospitalized for the illness as of Friday and 118 patients in intensive care units. Another 2,282 sickened with COVID-19 had recovered and were out of isolation.
The deaths Friday were reported in Anoka, Benton, Dakota, Hennepin, Olmsted, Ramsey and Washington counties. And communities with meat processing plants again saw their confirmed case totals surge as testing in those counties increased.
In Nobles County, home to the JBS meat processing plant, had a total of 866 confirmed positive cases as of Friday. The county has a population of roughly 22,000 people. By comparison, Ramsey County, which has a population of about 550,000 people, on Friday reported that 405 residents had confirmed cases. And Stearns County saw its total cases grow by 168 as compared to a day prior, to a total of 435.
In terms of contact tracing at sites like the JBS meat processing plant, where employees speak a total of 58 different languages, Ehresmann said there are difficulties in notifying contacts, even with the help of interpreters and Language Line.
State officials said focused testing in communities with meat processing plants fueled higher case counts there.
Walz signed an executive order Friday that allows the Minnesota Department of Transportation to designate up to six highway rest areas to host licensed food trucks for truck drivers.
With most restaurants closed or limited to take-out, truck drivers have been faced with difficulties accessing nutritious and freshly prepared meals while providing an essential service, the order read.
Walz issued the order the day after he extended the state's stay at home order for two more weeks with an alteration allowing customer-facing businesses like dog groomers or dry cleaners to reopen if they could use delivery or curbside pickup services. The DFL governor also extended until May 18 the closure of dine-in restaurants and bars in the state.
Walz said he would gradually reopen businesses, permissible social gatherings and travel as the state continued to bring online testing for COVID-19 and contact tracing for those who may have been around someone with the illness. The state has built up hospital capacity and personal protective equipment to meet the anticipated demands of a peak in cases in Minnesota, he said.
But Walz said he wanted to approach a return to normal by turning the dial rather than flipping a switch and allowing many Minnesotans to go back to prepandemic normalcy. The state recommended that Minnesotans wear masks or face coverings in public spaces and continue social distancing and recommended hygiene practices to limit the disease's spread.
“We can’t eliminate COVID-19 at this point in time without a vaccine but we can slow this and this is the way it should look, to build slow herd immunity and not overwhelm the health care system,” Walz said.
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