The number of Minnesotans being tested for the coronavirus has declined from its late November peak, but state leaders say testing is still one of the key tools to controlling the state’s outbreak and reopening parts of society.
The average number of tests being processed each day has declined from more than 60,000 a day in late November to fewer than 45,000 each day by Dec. 24. The average test-positivity rate has also declined from a November peak of nearly 15 percent to about 6 percent in late December.
Test numbers and positivity have followed the trend line of the state’s worst surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths during the pandemic. Health officials have suggested the fewer people being tested is likely a result of residents taking restrictions more seriously and a decline in how much coronavirus is circulating in the community.
Once the outbreak is under control, state leaders say, Minnesota can use its robust testing capacity to keep the coronavirus in check as vaccines are distributed.
“Testing will become more important after the first of the year, when this vaccine is rolled out, than it has been early in this,” Gov. Tim Walz said. “Countries that got this under control, kept their economies open and saved lives, were countries that very early on were very robust with testing, contact tracing and isolation.”
Minnesota has screened more than 5.3 million samples from about 2.9 million Minnesotans since March. Those tests have diagnosed more than 404,000 coronavirus cases.
There was a time when Walz called the ability to test 5,000 samples a day a “Minnesota moonshot.” Now the state has enough capacity to screen roughly 65,000 samples on a daily basis.
That capacity comes from partnerships with Mayo Clinic, the University of Minnesota and other health providers. The state used about $15 million to open a lab in Oakdale to process saliva tests that are administered at sites around the state.
“Some things don’t change,” Walz said. “Testing, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine, couple with mitigation measures of masking, social distancing and hand washing are the major tools.”
“Once we push this thing down … It is going to become more important than ever,” Walz added.
One place state leaders hope the ability to conduct a lot of tests in a relatively short period of time will make a big difference is in public schools. Walz gave education leaders the green light to reopen elementary schools in January if they feel safe doing so.
Jan Malcolm, the state’s Department of Health commissioner, says testing will be a big part of that. While children are not as susceptible to serious coronavirus infections, teachers and other staffers are, so quickly containing any outbreaks is important to safe operation.
“We will be putting a very significant effort toward increasing testing for the education community,” Malcolm said. “That certainly is a critical part of giving the schools more support and more tools, especially when it comes to returning to in-classroom learning.”
State leaders also hope to use testing to better understand how the coronavirus is spreading in different communities. It typically requires repeated screenings of large groups including those who don’t feel sick and are not showing any symptoms.
So-called “surveillance testing” can help health officials better understand the best ways to slow outbreaks.
“To some degree we have been doing that as part and parcel of our community testing program,” Malcolm said. “To do true surveillance testing — and we are talking about what that should be like in the next step of the pandemic response — we really need to identify populations and be testing them not just once or twice, but with real regularity.”
While Minnesota started distributing a limited number of vaccines in mid-December it will likely be months before doses are available for the general public. In the meantime, state leaders are pleading with Minnesotans to continue to follow mitigation measures to slow the coronavirus spread.
That includes being tested whenever someone has symptoms or concerns over possibly being exposed.
“We have and will encourage people to get tested, even if they are asymptomatic,” Malcolm said. “We want everybody who feels any concern about their symptoms or potential exposure to come and get tested.”
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