(TNS) — Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz threw down a gauntlet Monday on when the state can restart the economy he shut down last month to gird against the spreading coronavirus pandemic:
5,000 tests per day.
And a robust ability to trace infections and isolate those carrying the virus.
It’s an ambitious standard — one he likened to the quest to put a human on the moon — and it’s not clear how soon it can be achieved.
He refused to commit to a date, leaving those hoping for some sense of how to schedule their hopes without an answer.
“Those who keep asking ‘What’s the plan to reopen?’ The plan to reopen is very clear: test, trace, isolate, open back up,” Walz said during an afternoon conference call with reporters.
For perspective on the size of the task: Testing 5,000 people a day would amount to 25,000 in a work week. To date, Minnesota has tested fewer than 38,000 people since the start of the pandemic.
“We need to get there within the next few weeks,” Walz said of the goal. He said he has issued it as a challenge to his staff and collaborators at the University of Minnesota, as well as those in the private sector. “I’m speaking here as the governor who needs to make sure that this happens. Our folks know that this is gonna be a hard lift.”
Walz, a Democrat, laid down the herculean hope as he faced increasing intonations of impatience, especially from some Republicans, as the state enters its third week of a stay-at-home order set to continue until May 4.
He said that date wasn’t out of the question, but presumably, if the tests aren’t in hand, major restrictions would continue.
Republicans Call For Plan
Shortly before Walz’s call Monday, the state’s top Republican, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, issued a statement that read, in part: “Our hope is Governor Walz will soon lay out his plan to reopen Minnesota’s schools, churches, businesses, and activities after May 4, 2020. He clearly understands the healthcare emergency caused by the COVID-19 virus. We need to be assured he also understands the economic emergency caused by his response.”
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, released a statement around the same time, calling for transparency in how Walz determines what the standards will be for businesses, schools and other sectors to reopen — and which will be given priority.
“With the state shut down as a result of the Governor’s executive order, Minnesotans deserve greater transparency and input into the process of eventually reopening our economy and getting folks back to work,” Daudt said. “It should not be up to a few commissioners in Saint Paul to be the sole decision-makers for thousands of businesses and millions of employees. We need a transparent process that includes the public, business leaders, health experts, and legislators — together, we can create a Minnesota plan to reopen our economy, and do it in a way that protects people’s health and well-being.”
Walz and Steve Grove, state commissioner of the the Department of Employment and Economic Development, said they’ve generally been consulting with business leaders, including regular calls with statewide chambers of commerce, to discuss the situation. There doesn’t appear to be a formal panel or commission at this point.
They said officials with the Minnesota Department of Health are developing new guidelines, with guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on what specific standards businesses might have to meet.
However, neither Grove nor Walz indicated when those guidelines might be ready. In response to a reporter’s question suggesting businesses might want to know when the guidelines would be available, to prepare ahead of time, Grove suggested they would be available when the testing-and-tracing needs are met.
Walz has medical experts — and real-world COVID-19 experience — on his side in focusing on a strategy of testing, tracing and isolation.
Most well-known is the example of South Korea, the only Democracy that appears to have succeeded in suppressing and containing the nation’s outbreak before it ran amok, as it has done to varying degrees in practically every other free nation thus far.
South Korea flattened its curve in early March through an exhaustive testing protocol that continues to this day, albeit much more toned down, as the number of cases continues to rise but at a snail’s pace compared with other nations. As of Wednesday, the nation of 51 million had tested nearly 519,000 people. Total deaths: 273. South Korea has enacted “enhanced social distancing,” but businesses have been allowed to remain open.
Iceland recently announced plans to test every one of its 364,000 people — a number that puts it on par with the population of St. Paul — and has begun literally picking names randomly out of a national phone book. Over the weekend, it reached the 10 percent-of-its-people-tested threshold, the first of any nation to achieve that. Iceland has also flattened its curve without hospitals becoming overwhelmed.
One eye-popper that Iceland has discovered: At any given moment, perhaps half of its population who has the virus doesn’t know it because they have no symptoms at the time — further evidence to support the idea that opening without ample testing will only lead to new outbreaks that will ultimately shut down the economy on their own.
Walz said look no farther than Sioux Falls, S.D., where a massive pork plant was closed Sunday after nearly 300 workers tested positive. The Smithfield Farms plant accounts for nearly 5 percent of America’s pork-producing capacity.
The lack of widely available testing has dogged the United States response from Day 1, as experts now believe the virus blew past any chance of suppression and was widely circulating in the community before even modest testing was available — and any real chance of containment was even possible.
Numerous public health experts, as well as economists, have said that increased testing is a key part of any efforts to re-open the American economy.
However, it remains unclear what the national plan is to scale testing to those levels, and Walz and some other governor’s have frequently expressed frustration over that.
“This is a broken system across the country,” Walz said. “We’ve tested less than 1 percent of the American population. Here in Minnesota, I can no longer wait.” Employing the phrase “Minnesota moonshot,” Walz has said he is engaging scientists and labs at the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, as well as other private companies, in an effort to create a testing capacity that is essentially independent of any federal limitations.
How It Would Work
Under Walz’s vision, two types of testing would be employed.
One would test for antibodies to the virus. This determines if someone has already been infected and, presumably, has immunity, such people would be able to resume their normal lives.
Efforts to make such blood tests widely available are already underway. The Mayo Clinic can already run 20,000 tests a day and is hoping to increase that capacity to 100,000. However, it’s unclear what portion of those tests will be available for Minnesotans.
At this point, Minnesota might have about 165,000 people who have already been exposed to the virus, according to a Department of Health estimate of 100 cases for each lab-confirmed case. But with more than 5.6 million residents, the overwhelming majority isn’t likely to have antibodies.
While Walz suggested that young and healthy people might be allowed to go back to work if they so desire and practice social distancing, there would be a bounty of fresh hosts for the virus.
That would put a burden on the other type of test — the one that looks for signs of the virus to identify those who are infected.
Under this strategy, once a positive case is found, that person is isolated, either at home or elsewhere, while a team traces their movements and contacts. That sort of “contact tracing” is generally labor intensive, and Walz didn’t elaborate on whether Minnesota currently has the manpower in place for that. Currently, contact tracing appears to be focused on outbreaks among health care workers and hospitals and long-term care centers. Some have suggested portions of the task could be automated via smartphone apps.
But the primary hurdle is that the tests for the virus have been limited in quantity by delays in supplies of materials and chemical ingredients needed to perform them. Walz suggested it might be possible to manufacture in Minnesota a type of swab used to collect samples for testing.
Walz was asked whether it was realistic to think that all of this could be achieved by May 4.
“We’re gonna find out. I have not guaranteed that,” he said. “Some of it is constrained by supply chain constraints, but I’m asking our people to think differently. … I don’t know if it’s realistic but it certainly needs to be a goal that we need to shoot for.”
This article has been edited to better describe recent data from Iceland about people who have the coronavirus but don’t know it. Another section was edited to correct how many coronavirus tests would be completed in a work week at a rate of 5,000 per day.
©2020 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.