MINNEAPOLIS – Vice President Mike Pence has an appointment Tuesday at Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic to learn about a new coronavirus testing “moonshot” that has the famed clinic partnering with the state and its flagship university to quickly boost the state's capacity to 20,000 tests a day.
It’s an approach that leverages a health care infrastructure not all states can match. And it should help Minnesota become one of the most aggressive states at testing on the scale experts say is necessary to safely reopen the economy. Minnesota is one of several states that have quit waiting for the federal government for help.
Democratic Gov. Tim Walz unveiled the state's partnership with the University of Minnesota and Mayo last Wednesday, promising that every resident with symptoms of the coronavirus can get tested once the plan ramps up in the next few weeks.
“This is not a state that’s just going to get through COVID-19; this is a state that’s going to lead this nation and the world out of this,” Walz vowed of his ”moonshot."
Pence recognized Walz's efforts at a White House briefing Thursday, where he also praised Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine for an initiative to boost his state's testing capacity to 22,000 per day through a partnership with reagent manufacturer Thermo Fisher. The vice president also cited Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds for a partnership with Utah-based startup Nomi Health aimed at increasing her state's lagging testing capacity by 3,000 per day from its current 1,000-2,000.
“This is the kind of approach and commitment that we need, and I’m glad the vice president is shining a light on promising efforts. We need more,” Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said of Pence's visit to Mayo. “Kudos to Minnesota for being a part of that.”
Minnesota has one of the lowest confirmed cases per-capita in the country, but its testing has lagged behind what the Walz administration says is needed. An Associated Press analysis of data from the COVID Tracking Project shows that Minnesota now ranks among the lowest states in per-capita testing, sixth from the bottom at 10.51 per 100,000 residents, with Kansas last at 9.01. Rhode Island is the highest at 50.51. while New York, the hardest hit state, ranks second at 41.21.
“Minnesota is probably low in terms of tests per thousand compared with other states, but the good news for Minnesota is the testing that it's doing relative to the cases it's finding is relatively high ... ,” Nuzzo said. “You don't want the majority of your tests resulting in cases because that suggests there's many cases out there you're not finding.”
Minnesota’s death toll from the coronavirus rose by 14 to 286 as of Monday, while 214 new confirmed cases raised the statewide total to 3,816. State and private labs had conducted 61,268 tests as of Monday,
There is huge variation across the country on how aggressive states have been about testing, said Dr. Joel Shalowitz, an adjunct professor at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. That’s partly because some states that do a lot of testing, such as New York and New Jersey, are among the hardest hit states, while some states that do less testing also have fewer cases. So a lot of testing is driven by the need to test, or the alleged need, he said.
While the University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic are “absolutely world-class institutions,” Shalowitz said, much will depend on how accurate their testing proves to be. False positives can force healthy patients into isolation, while false negatives can lead to infected people spreading the virus. Accuracy among other institutions varies widely, he said.
“If Minnesota can increase its capacity to 20,000 tests per day, that would be a very meaningful increase in its testing capacity,” said Dr. Thomas Tsai, a health policy researcher at the Harvard Global Health Institute.
Being home to both the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic “does increase the tools in the toolbox for being able to perform tests,” he said. But test numbers aren't the whole answer, he cautioned.
“Testing capacity is one part of the puzzle,” Tsai said “The most important piece is the strategy around testing — not waiting for people to show up. You have to do active contact tracing and active outreach into the community.”