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Is Minnesota’s COVID-19 testing capacity where it needs to be right now?

Minnesotans report difficulty buying rapid tests and longer waits for test results, even as new cases of COVID-19 persist at high levels.

Akyiaa Wilson receives a coronavirus disease test from technician Adrian Gutierrez at a mobile testing van in New York City in August.
Akyiaa Wilson receives a coronavirus disease test from technician Adrian Gutierrez at a mobile testing van in New York City in August.
REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Now nearly 19 months into the COVID-19 pandemic in Minnesota, the majority of the state’s residents are vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus.

Yet with cases rising — mostly among the unvaccinated — and the more infectious delta variant prompting breakthrough cases even among those who have the shots, demand for COVID-19 tests has risen rapidly in recent months. Minnesotans are getting tested as part of routine screening, when they have symptoms of illness, to keep friends and family members safe at gatherings or because they need a negative test to board an airplane or go to school or work.

Amid the high demand, Minnesotans are having more trouble securing rapid tests and are sometimes seeing longer waits for test results than they were over the summer.

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Longer waits

The number of COVID-19 tests performed in Minnesota has increased rapidly in recent weeks: the most recent data show a weekly average of 486 tests per 10,000 residents, compared to just over 100 tests per 10,000 residents in early July. In November 2020, just before Thanksgiving, Minnesota reported nearly 790 tests per 10,000 residents.

As demand for tests has increased, some Minnesotans have noticed appointments for tests filling up more quickly at doctors’ offices and pharmacies, and many report waiting longer for test results.

Stephanie Zawistowski’s family has been visiting the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport regularly since February so their two elementary-aged kids, who have been in school and summer programs, can get tested as a precaution. The MSP airport testing site is one of 13 no-cost community testing sites run by Vault Health under contract with the state.

At first, it took Zawistowski’s then-kindergartner an hour to fill the sample tube with spit.

“Now she’s in and out in 10 minutes,” she said.

Emails from Vault say test results should be available within 24 to 48 hours of the sample arriving at the lab, but often, they’re available more quickly. From February until late summer, Zawistowski’s family would usually get tested on Saturday mornings, receive an email that their samples had arrived that evening, and have results by the time they woke up on Sunday. But lately, it’s felt less predictable, and usually takes longer than it did before, though still within the 24 to 48 hour timeframe from the time the tests arrive at the lab to when results are available.

In recent weeks when family members have been tested on Saturday, results often haven’t been available until Monday evening, Zawistowski said. When one child who was home under quarantine developed potential COVID-19 symptoms, the family kept the other child home from school recently on a Monday awaiting test results.

Rena Carlson Rasmussen has noted an increase in test turnaround time, too. She’s been getting tested weekly as a precautionary measure. Though vaccinated, Rasmussen said that as the manager of a coworking space, weekly testing offers peace of mind: “It’s just a part of  my regular routine with being around a lot of people,” she said.

In the spring, when Rasmussen got tested at the state’s testing site at Roy Wilkins Auditorium in downtown St. Paul, also run by Vault Health, she would typically get results back the same night. Now, it’s often taking more than a day, she said, between the time she spits in the tube and when she receives an email with her results.

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Longer turnaround

Vault has seen some increase in median test processing time in recent weeks, spokesperson Kate Brickman said.

The company measures turnaround time as the time between when the sample arrives at the lab and when results are available. That’s because the company processes both mailed-in tests and tests taken at community testing sites across the state and some in schools.

The median time between test arrival and results for the most recent week was nine hours, Brickman said Monday. That’s down from 12 hours the week prior and up from five to six hours in June and July when test volume was lower. Still, 95 percent of test results take less than 24 hours to come back after they arrive at the lab, Brickman said.

“It’s definitely increased a little bit in terms of turnaround time as demand has doubled and tripled,” Brickman said. “But the test results are still generally taking under 12 hours once they arrive at the lab.”

Brickman said turnaround time is similar to high volume testing times in the spring.

At Sanford Health’s Bemidji location, test results are often taking a bit longer to come back than they used to, too, as test volume rises. Sanford Bemidji has gone from administering around 900 tests in a week to 2,100 recently, and appointments to get tested are filling up quickly, said Amy Magnuson, the director for primary care at the Bemidji site.

The site has switched to exclusively using PCR tests for symptomatic patients, That means the samples need to be sent to a lab, increasing turnaround time, which is now typically between 24 and 48 hours.

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“I think we’re still doing pretty good, but it is a little bit longer than what people may have experienced over the last couple months,” Magnuson said.

It’s not just Minnesota where COVID-19 test turnaround time is increasing. As demand for COVID-19 tests has risen, other states are seeing similar increases in time it takes to get results back, per news stories in Montana, Maryland and Maine.

Minnesota Department of Health spokesperson Scott Smith said in an email that Minnesota’s labs — both private and contracted through the state — have the capacity to meet higher testing demand than the state is now seeing.

Currently, labs are processing between 17,000 and 40,000 tests per day — far fewer than the roughly 90,000 processed on the peak processing day. Smith said he hadn’t heard of issues with turnaround time.

Rapid tests scarce

As Minnesotans seek to get tested more often, many are turning to rapid antigen tests. These tests, available at pharmacies for about $12 to $40 each, come back in around 15 minutes. They are typically less accurate than the gold-standard PCR tests done at Vault and other labs, but offer the advantage of a quick result.

Rapid tests are widely available – and sometimes free — in some other countries, but here, supply is falling short of demand, with pharmacies often unable to keep them in stock. As of publication, most local CVS stores and some Walgreens showed them out of stock.

In recent weeks, Minnesotans have been sharing tips on social media when and where the scarce tests become available, and parents especially report frustration finding tests as back-to-school sniffles season starts.

“With elementary school kids, I had to drive all over town last week to find a rapid test for littles,” one Twin Cities parent tweeted.

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Testing capacity

Unvaccinated people with COVID-19 exposures are supposed to quarantine for 14 days regardless of test outcome, but getting a result sooner can offer some measure of comfort. For screening testing to be effective in schools, tests should be available within 24 hours, the CDC says.

Zawistowski said she’s glad to have the testing sites available, but said a longer wait time makes it harder for parents to make decisions that ultimately affect their children, and potentially, their communities.

“You can’t test your way out of a pandemic, but it certainly provides you with a lot more information to make better choices, particularly when you are a parent trying to make choices for your kids who are not eligible yet to be vaccinated,” Zawistowski said.“We’re into our third school year in which we’re dealing with the pandemic, and it seems like it’s just gotten harder and not easier and it’s weird to backtrack like that.”