University of Minnesota researchers say they could soon be ready to test 10,000 people daily for COVID-19, a development that could help give health experts a better understanding of the coronavirus’ true extent and lead to a reopening of the state.
The development provides a glimmer of hope as health officials continue to struggle with rationed testing and the COVID-19 death toll nears 100.
The latest coronavirus statistics:
1,912 cases via 41,675 tests
475 cases requiring hospitalization
213 people remain in the hospital; 103 in ICUs
1,020 patients recovered
72 of Minnesota’s 87 counties now have at least one confirmed COVID-19 case as of Thursday. Martin County continues to have the most severe outbreak based on its population with 39 confirmed cases and four deaths.
The U of M is asking the Legislature for $20 million to ramp up its testing efforts. Researchers at the school started from scratch to build a testing regimen that wouldn’t suffer from current supply shortages.
It would include two types of tests: One is a polymerase chain reaction — or PCR test. This detects coronavirus particles in the nose, and could tell whether someone is contagious. A separate serology test measures antibodies in the bloodstream, which would indicate if someone has developed an immune response from an earlier infection.
Widespread testing is necessary before society can return to normal and unlike other new tests on the market, the U method works, said Tim Schacker, vice dean for research at the U’s medical school.
“We can be independent. We don’t have to rely on supply chain issues, which are plaguing everybody. And we don’t have to be draining away from that supply,” Schacker said.
If successful, the researchers hope to test up to 300,000 people a month with a focus on gauging the outbreak’s extent and keeping health workers safe. State Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, this week introduced a bill that would set aside $20 million for COVID-19 testing. While the money is not earmarked for the U specifically, Nelson said she’s already planning to revise her legislation.
“I would be seeking $40 million. So, there’s $20 million for the U to complete its mission, and $20 million for Mayo Clinic to complete its mission,” she said.
Mayo Clinic and Hennepin Healthcare are also working on large scale testing, but they have not released detailed proposals. At a legislative hearing Thursday, Mayo Laboratories senior vice president Scott Beck said the lab has already ramped up PCR diagnostic tests which they made available to patients outside the Mayo health system a month ago.
“We currently have a capacity of around 7,500 tests per day, and have conducted about 108,000 tests since inception. Twenty-five thousand of those for people in the state of Minnesota,” Beck said.
Mayo can handle 20,000 serology antibody tests each day, Beck said, and the lab is developing additional ways to detect COVID-19 and the body’s immune response to it.
Gov. Tim Walz is pushing for 5,000 tests a day by May 4, when his stay-home order is set to expire. Drastically increased testing by the U and Mayo Clinic will likely help hit that goal — which Walz has said is crucial to begin safely reopening the economy. In a statement, the governor’s office praised the U of M’s proposal, saying it remains “in communication with the U on how their work could fit into a statewide plan.”
MPR News reporters Tim Nelson and Catharine Richert contributed to this story.
Developments from around the state
Metro Transit suspends all overnight light rail service
Metro Transit says it will suspend nighttime light rail service beginning Saturday morning. The transit agency said on Thursday that Green and Blue lines will stop for the night at 9 p.m. and start again at 6 a.m.
The Blue Line between Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport will continue running overnight.
— MPR News staff
Majority of MN child care providers wait on ‘not nearly enough’ state funding
Nearly 70 percent of Minnesota’s child care providers have applied for state grants available through the COVID-19 rescue plan.
Child Care Aware of Minnesota is administering $30 million in funding that the Legislature approved last month. At a House committee hearing Thursday, executive director Ann McCully said the organization received 6,000 applicants — but there is only funding for just over 1,000 of them.
“There is just so much need out there, even when we try to zero in on helping our essential workers,” she said. “We are excited to be able to at least help those programs that will receive grants, but we know it will not be nearly enough.”
The child care industry has been hit hard by the pandemic. Many child care providers have closed as more families stay home with their children. Some providers are concerned they may not be able to reopen.
— Riham Feshir | MPR News
Jobless report shows ‘leading edge’ of virus’ impact
It’ll be another month before the massive layoffs due to COVID-19 are reflected in Minnesota’s unemployment figures.
On Thursday, the state reported the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for March remained at 3.1 percent, unchanged from February. The statistics were gathered before a wave of layoffs began in the middle of March.
More than 450,000 people have applied for unemployment assistance since March 16. Thursday’s report shows only “the leading edge” of coronavirus unemployment impact, said Steve Grove, commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development.
The report for April, which is due on May 21, will capture the brunt of the employment downturn. Even before that, the state says the labor force had shrunk by 48,000 people between February and March in a workforce pool that was slightly below 3 million people. Nationally, the unemployment rate for March was 4.4 percent.
— Brian Bakst | MPR News
A look at the data that’s helping Minnesota plan its COVID-19 response: Gov. Tim Walz and other state officials are using a model from the Minnesota Department of Health and the University of Minnesota to predict the health impacts of COVID-19. But with data so uncertain, the model doesn’t predict one future so much as many. Researchers shared data from 100 of their thousands of simulations with MPR News — a randomly chosen 50 simulations from two specific scenarios.
7 Midwest states to partner on reopening the economy: Seven Midwestern governors, including Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, announced Thursday that they will coordinate on reopening their state economies, after similar pacts were made in the Northeast and on the West Coast. The latest agreement includes Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin and Kentucky.
Minnesota Senate approves beer and wine takeout sales: The Minnesota Senate on Thursday passed legislation that allows bars and restaurants to sell wine and beer along with takeout food orders. Under the bill, customers could purchase one bottle of wine or up to a six-pack of beer with their food. The House is expected to take it up Friday. Walz said earlier this week that he is “totally supportive” of the proposal.
Caregivers try to maintain routines in an abnormal time: Caring for those with dementia can be an all-consuming and isolating job. But in the era of the coronavirus, it has become even more difficult.
COVID-19 in Minnesota
Health officials for weeks have been increasingly raising the alarm over the spread of the novel coronavirus in the United States. The disease is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.
Government and medical leaders are urging people to wash their hands frequently and well, refrain from touching their faces, cover their coughs, disinfect surfaces and avoid large crowds, all in an effort to curb the virus’ rapid spread.
The state of Minnesota has temporarily closed schools, while administrators work to determine next steps, and is requiring a temporary closure of all in-person dining at restaurants, bars and coffee shops, as well as theaters, gyms, yoga studios and other spaces in which people congregate in close proximity.