by CHRIS ROGERS
Winonans can get tested now.
Thanks to the delivery of new test kits from Minnesota labs, Winona Health is now offering COVID-19 testing for people with symptoms of the virus and for asymptomatic (symptom-less) people who have been in contact with confirmed COVID-19 cases. People without symptoms and without known exposure are not eligible for testing.
For the majority of the pandemic, there have not been enough testing supplies to go around, and tests have been limited to the highest-priority patients: hospitalized patients, health care workers and first responders, and people living and working in congregate facilities such as nursing homes. Ordinary people with mild COVID-19 symptoms were told to assume they have the virus and isolate themselves at home. Now, people in that position can finally get some certainty.
“It is really wonderful news,” Winona Health Chief Nursing and Operating Officer Sara Gabrick said. “There’s a lot of people who want to be tested. There’s a lot of people who should be tested.”
People with symptoms or exposure to confirmed cases of COVID-19 can get tested by visiting Winona Health’s urgent care department, on the first floor of the Mankato Avenue clinic. It’s open seven days a week.
For Winona Health, the game-changing event that made this possible is receiving a bunch of new test kits. There have been shortages of all kinds of supplies needed for testing. Earlier in the crisis, reagents — the chemicals that labs need to identify the virus in samples — were in short supply. More recently, the nose and throat swabs health care providers use to take samples have been a limiting factor. “There are not enough testing swabs,” Winona Health CEO Rachelle Schultz explained in a March 24 video. “We’re all frustrated by that,” she continued. Swabs were, Gabrick said, “Very, very, very, very hard to get.”
Now, labs across Minnesota have both increased their supplies of testing materials and established a better system for sharing those supplies. “We now have a statewide network of providers. So if one provider is short on tests, we can tap into others,” Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) Assistant Commissioner Daniel Huff explained.
Labs across Minnesota — including Mayo Clinic Laboratories, where most Winona Health samples are tested — have shared large numbers of test kits with local health providers such as Winona’s hospital, Gabrick said. Kits include both swabs and vials of solution to preserve the sample on its way to the lab. “They have definitely ramped up their supply, so we have been able to get many more than we were ever able to get in the past,” Gabrick explained.
The expansion of testing supplies is part of a statewide push. “Every symptomatic Minnesotan should be tested as soon as possible,” MDH Commissioner Jan Malcolm declared in an April 22 press conference announcing a new partnership between the University of Minnesota, Mayo Clinic, the state government, and hospitals and clinics across the state to dramatically expand testing. It is a goal Governor Tim Walz has called the “Minnesota moonshot” — developing the capacity to test tens of thousands of Minnesotans every day in local communities all across the state. However, as of last week, it was still unclear exactly when that testing capacity would reach local clinics and hospitals. It could take three to four weeks for test kits to be distributed everywhere, Malcolm said at the time. Fortunately, it appears Winona won’t have to wait that long.
“In the event we were unable to get test kits again, we would have to go back to more rigid criteria,” Gabrick said. However, she stated, “The sense is, we’ll have a nice, steady stream of [test kit deliveries].”
For people who were exposed but test negative, the expanded testing could provide a huge a sigh of relief. Without proven treatments for COVID-19, getting a positive test result won’t change the advice mildly symptomatic or asymptomatic patients get: stay home. At least it provides some certainty.
If enough people can be tested, the expanded capacity may also give public health leaders a better sense of how widespread the virus really is. State experts estimated earlier this month that the number of actual COVID-19 infections in Minnesota may be 100 times greater than the number lab-confirmed cases. “With more testing, we will see more cases,” MDH Infectious Disease Division Director Kris Ehresmann said.
In addition to a goal of running 20,000 diagnostic tests every day, the state government, U of M, the Mayo Clinic, and Minnesota health systems said they will soon have the capacity to complete 15,000 serology tests per day. Also known as antibody tests, serology tests use a blood draw to check whether a patient’s immune system has antibodies to fight COVID-19. Generally, antibodies can protect the body from future infections. However, experts say it is still unclear whether recovered COVID-19 patients are fully immune from reinfection or how long any immunity lasts.
The state’s promise of widespread antibody testing does not appear to be available in Winona, yet. Gabrick reported that Winona Health is doing some amount of antibody testing but is still developing criteria for whom to test and when.
Despite all the progress, “We’re not where we need to be with testing,” Huff said on Tuesday. “We know this is a ramp up,” he stated, explaining capacity will grow gradually. “It’s not something where there’s a light switch and you flip it on, but rather we’re increasing our testing capacity every day,” he stated.
Local deaths continue; distance learning extended
Last week, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz announced that in-person, K-12 classes will not resume this school year. “I know there’s a lot of tears shed about this,” Walz said, acknowledging the graduating seniors and communities who will miss out on commencement and the student-athletes who will not get to enjoy their final year of high school competition and camaraderie.
Walz eased shutdown orders on some non-essential businesses, allowing certain offices and factories to return to work with plans for keeping employees a distance apart.
Since last Wednesday, four more Winona County citizens died as a result of COVID-19, a total of 14 deaths, and the county’s number of lab-confirmed cases rose to 66.
In neighboring Wabasha, Fillmore, Houston, and Buffalo counties, the number of confirmed infections remained low. Trempealeau County reported its second confirmed case of the virus in the past week. The number of people who tested positive for COVID-19 in Rochester’s Olmsted County swelled to 251 as of Tuesday, but only six people there have died from the virus.