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The daily coronavirus update: 17 new cases; testing shortage tied to supplies

In Minnesota, the problem is that some supplies needed for testing are in short supply. 

Photo: CDC/Alissa Eckert

For the foreseeable future, MinnPost will be providing daily updates on coronavirus in Minnesota, published following the press phone call conducted by the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) each afternoon.

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The latest updates from March 18, 2020:

Today’s case count: 17 new, 77 total

MDH announced 17 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday, for a total of 77 in Minnesota.It’s important to note that with limited testing capacity in Minnesota, the number of actual cases in the state is likely higher. On Tuesday, MDH released new guidelines suggesting tests be given on a priority basis to those who are hospitalized, health care workers, and those living in congregate settings like long-term care.

Counties with confirmed cases and total confirmed cases:

  • Anoka: 3
  • Benton: 1
  • Blue Earth: 2
  • Carver: 2
  • Dakota: 8
  • Hennepin: 28
  • Martin: 2
  • Nicollet: 2
  • Olmsted: 6
  • Ramsey: 12
  • Renville: 1
  • Scott: 1
  • Stearns: 3
  • Waseca: 1
  • Washington: 3
  • Wright: 2

Over the duration of the Minnesota outbreak, seven Minnesotans have been hospitalized. Three have been released, while four are currently hospitalized; one in critical condition. The person in critical condition is a patient in their 30s from Anoka County.

Health care workers account for 13 of the cases, though all are believed to have picked up the virus while traveling and not through their work.

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A total of six of Minnesota’s cases (up from three over the weekend) are believed to come from community transmission, meaning the patient was exposed from a source not connected to travel or from another known COVID-19 case.

Testing shortage tied to supplies

With high demand for testing, capacity issues exist at several levels of the supply chain, said Kris Ehresmann, the director of the Minnesota Department of Health’s Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention, and Control Division. She listed supplies needed for testing in short supply, including reagents, tips used for extraction and equipment used to do multiple test runs at a time.

Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Infectious Disease Director Kris Ehresmann
The state lab is using different methodologies to test because different methods use slightly different supplies, but is “still finding it difficult to have all the necessary supplies to be able to conduct unlimited testing,” Ehresmann said.

She said she has heard of shortages of swabs for the tests because of high demand, but said “at this point that has not become an issue for us.”

Ehresmann said MDH is getting different messages about capacity from the private labs, with some saying they would not continue to test because they don’t have the needed supplies. 

Countries that have seen more success in mitigating COVID-19’s damage have used testing aggressively to confirm cases and quarantine people who have the virus.

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But Ehresmann said media emphasis on testing makes it sound like testing is of greater importance than staying home when you’re sick. 

Without the ability to test widely, the state’s lab is focused on testing those who are hospitalized, those who work in health care and those who live in close quarters, like long-term care facilities and homeless shelters. Ehresmann stressed that employers should not require confirmation of COVID-19 to give ill employees sick time.

“Having a positive COVID test for someone who is not hospitalized, who has mild symptoms, is not a magic bullet. It doesn’t inform the treatment because there is no treatment, and it doesn’t change our recommendations for staying home when you’re sick,” she said Tuesday.

Is Minnesota “flattening the curve”?

Ehresmann also said it may be too early to tell whether Minnesota is successfully slowing the outbreak, or “flattening the curve,” so that COVID-19 doesn’t overwhelm the healthcare system. While the number of cases continues to increase, it’s good news that they aren’t doubling every day, she said. Still, we know there’s community transmission and that there are many more cases than have been detected in testing.

Asked how long social distancing measures will go on, Ehresmann said nobody at MDH is suggesting they’re short-term.

She said the state had dialed up community mitigation and will be working with the governor’s office to talk about when to dial them back down after studying outcomes in research and in other states.

In MinnPost today:

For more information, you can visit MDH’s coronavirus website.

The state’s COVID-19 hotline for health questions is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.: 651-201-3920