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Testing supply chain remains concern in Minnesota

Widespread testing is important to identify and stop the spread of COVID-19, but Minnesota officials say the supply chain is causing problems.

ST PAUL, Minn. — The federal government’s response for COVID-19 testing remains a “frustration” for the state of Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz said on Wednesday. His administration continues to press the Trump administration for critical supplies to identify the virus in local patients.

After a conference call with the governors of all 50 states and five U.S. territories, Walz said his colleagues continue to “fret” over the testing process.

“Because of understanding how critical it’s going to be,” Walz said, “as we come through this first wave.”

The governor, as well as many experts, contend that bolstered COVID-19 testing could drastically slow the spread of the virus by isolating patients and tracking their contacts. Although the U.S. has rapidly increased testing capacity in the past few weeks, the issue is much more nuanced than the sheer number of tests delivered to health providers – and Minnesota health officials say they need assistance from Washington when it comes to testing supplies.

For example, Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said on Wednesday that her lab direly needs the chemical “reagents” that are vital in confirming the presence of COVID-19. Malcolm said the state has enough of these reagents in stock to complete an additional 600 “high-capacity” tests, but she said a new shipment of supplies is currently on back-order until May 1.

With cases expected to spike throughout April, Malcolm’s team has asked the Trump administration for help to expedite the supply chain.  

“We’ve had multiple phone calls with the Department of Health and Human Services at the highest levels, based on the governor’s personal request to Vice President Pence,” Malcolm said. “We’ve sent specific supply requests and have not heard back.”

Malcolm said that HHS told Rep. Tom Emmer that supplies were on their way, but did not specify a timetable and did not respond to Emmer’s follow-up request. A spokesperson for Emmer said the representative “continues to engage with the administration to secure additional testing supplies and protective equipment for Minnesota” and "remains in constant communication” with FEMA and HHS.

HHS did not yet respond to KARE 11’s request for comment, but the topic of testing was broached during a White House briefing late Wednesday. 

Vice President Pence said that more than a million tests have been performed in total and that more than 100,000 tests are being performed daily, adding that he believes the recent bolstering of private and commercial labs will help speed up the capacity. He did not directly address issues related to chemical reagents, even though a global shortage has been well-documented.

In her own press briefing with reporters, Malcolm said that hospitals have been working to develop their own testing methods, but that their supplies are on back-order as well. Overall, Minnesota has tested more than 21,000 people for COVID-19, with 8,280 coming from MDH’s public health lab.

In addition to the global shortage of chemical reagents to identify the virus, Malcolm said shortages of swabs and personal protective equipment also hinder health professionals from being able to safely conduct tests.

“So, all of these really make the testing situation quite a bit more multi-layered and complex,” Malcolm said, “than what I think some of the messaging from our federal colleagues have been.”

NATIONAL COVID-19 UPDATES: Coronavirus live updates: Trump acknowledges Federal PPE stockpile nearly depleted

LOCAL COVID-19 UPDATES: Live updates: With MN up to 17 COVID-19 deaths, Walz urges 'Stay at Home' compliance

KARE 11’s coverage of the coronavirus is rooted in Facts, not Fear. Visit kare11.com/coronavirus for comprehensive coverage, find out what you need to know about the Midwest specifically, learn more about the symptoms, and see what companies in Minnesota are hiring. Have a question? Text it to us at 763-797-7215. And get the latest coronavirus updates sent right to your inbox every morning. Subscribe to the KARE 11 Sunrise newsletter here. Help local families in need: www.kare11.com/give11

The state of Minnesota has set up a hotline for general questions about coronavirus at 651-201-3920 or 1-800-657-3903, available 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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