ROCHESTER, Minn. — Two days after reaching a long sought, single day milestone of 5,000 tests, testing for COVID-19 in Minnesota soared on Thursday, May 14, according to the state health department.
Concerned that the state's ample test capacity was going unused, health officials issued calls earlier in the week for Minnesotans with symptoms of coronavirus to seek out testing.
On Thursday, the state reported 6,717 people obtained diagnostic tests in a single day. Accompanying these additional tests, the state on Thursday reported 523 new cases, with Rice County reporting 28 cases, Nobles County reporting 29 cases, and Stearns County reporting 49 cases.
"Anyone who has symptoms of COVID-19 can and should be tested," said state health commissioner Jan Malcolm in a Thursday afternoon news conference. "If you're feeling symptomatic, if you have symptoms of respiratory illness or the symptoms we have outlined for COVID-19, please call your providers and see about getting a test."
The state has also reached a case interview milestone, according to state director of infectious disease Kris Ehresmann.
Case interviews, in which a public health worker briefs a newly diagnosed patient over the phone and gathers names of all people they may have exposed, is considered essential to the containment of the illness.
"Yesterday we completed 650 case interviews in a single day," Ehresmann said. "We did 500 through health department staff and another 150 through local public health." Ehresmann singled out the effort in Stearns County, where local health workers completed 49 interviews.
The rise in testing and rapid case interviews is considered pivotal for loosening the mitigation orders that have been in effect within the state since early March. On Wednesday night, Gov. Tim Walz said he would lift the stay at home order as scheduled on Monday, May 18, and allow small groups to gather with social distancing.
"The whole intention here is to carry out a gradual, targeted, careful reopening that is contingent on businesses using best practices," said Malcolm, "and for all of us to heed health guidance to not go out if we are ill, to limit travel, stay close to home, social distance and wear a mask."
"There is a need for vigilance among all of us in the new normal," Malcolm added. "This is not going back to the way things were before the pandemic. It's attempting to move towards more economic activity, with protected social interactions."
Should these warnings fail and the lifting of the stay at home order create a rapid spread of the illness, health officials have developed a contingency set of four statistical trip wires capable of alerting officials that outbreaks are occurring, said state epidemiologist Dr. Ruth Lynfield.
"The governor asked us to come up with some measures," Lynfield said, "that he could use in consideration of whether we need to dial back the lifting of activity or not." Lynfield described the four measures — now posted on a public facing Dial Back Dashboard — as a rising proportion of tests that are positive, a decrease in the state's reserve capacity for diagnostic testing, a faster new case doubling time, and a rising percentage of cases without known contact. Specifically, the state will consider imposing new limits on activity if:
- More than 15% of COVID-19 tests turn up positive over the course of seven days (the state is currently at 14%),
- The state drops below an ability to process 5,000 COVID-19 tests a day (the state can now process nearly 7,800),
- The state's total positive COVID-19 case number doubles every 5 days (that number currently doubles every 9.5 days), and
- 30% or more of new cases are from unknown contacts. (With 36% of new cases having no known contact, the state is currently out of compliance with this benchmark.)
Health officials will also be monitoring hospitalization rates for the illness, ICU use, PPE supplies, cases among healthcare workers and the statewide death rate from COVID-19.
In other news on Thursday, as part of the governor's five point plan to address outbreaks in long term care facilities, the state has now trained 20 Minnesota Army National Guard medics to collect test samples in congregate living facilities.
Also on Thursday, the Mayo Clinic reported that the international team testing convalescent plasma for the treatment of COVID-19 has released its first safety data on the treatment, and the results are promising.
A preprint publication (which has not been through peer review) reported that of 5,000 patients who received plasma between April 3 and May 3 less than 1% experienced serious adverse events within the first four hours after treatment. In another signal of safety, a 14.9% seven day mortality rate was deemed not excessive, given the serious condition of the patients receiving plasma treatment.
"This is just the beginning of the reporting process," says Dr. Michael Joyner, head of the EAP at Mayo Clinic in a statement. "We are optimistic but must remain objective as we assess increasing amounts of patient data."
The state on Thursday reported 25 deaths, lifting the state total to 663 deaths so far. One death was reported in each Brown, Clay, Dakota, Polk, and Washington counties, two deaths each were reported in Anoka, Stearns and Ramsey counties, and 14 deaths were reported in Hennepin County. Four-fifths of the deaths were among residents of long term care.
Among the practical advice offered Thursday for citizens hoping to resume social activities in small groups: "Don't have a long face to face conversation with an elderly neighbor," said Lynfield, "this virus has not gone away."
"Have the same attention to detail for social distancing when everyone arrives and leaves as when you are interacting," said Ehresmann. "Often you can have people clumping together when they are coming or going."
"Be sure to wear masks when you are travelling with others in a car," said Malcolm.
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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.