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Democrats press Pence on virus test shortage

Congressional delegation asks vice president for more coronavirus tests and missing ingredient.

MINNEAPOLIS — All five Democrats in Minnesota's congressional delegation signed a letter to Vice President Mike Pence Sunday seeking more COVID-19 testing kits and more of the chemical that's required to complete those laboratory reactions.

"It's not just the test. It's all the different ingredients that go into allowing the test to work," Sen. Tina Smith told KARE.

"And that's the issue we're raising with the vice president."

Sen. Smith, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and Minnesota's five Democrats -- Reps.Betty McCollum, Collin Peterson, Angie Craig, Dean Phillips and Ilhan Omar -- signed the letter to Vice President Pence asking for accelerated action.

The dispatch informs the vice president, who is heading federal government's coronavirus battle, that medical providers throughout Minnesota are concerned about the lack of testing supplies and other required chemicals. 

As of Sunday, roughly 1,500 Minnesotans had been tested for coronavirus and 35 of them were presumptive positive cases. The latest group included the first three community-spread cases, after many days of only travel-related cases.

The Minnesota Department of Health has asked the federal government to provide enough supplies to allow 15,000 tests per month. The testing capacity will increase as the Mayo Clinic and private labs begin conducting more tests, but the state's nowhere close to that target yet.

The second issue that has cropped up is that many of the testing kits don't include a critical reagent - homopolymeric nucleic acid. The is what labs use to isolate the virus' RNA, or genetic material, from the patient's swab samples.

The kits were shipped assuming the labs would already be stocked with the reagent, but with worldwide demand so high the supply chain has been taxed.

"The test kits are being shipped from one place and the reagents rely on another supply chain that goes back in a different way," Sen. Smith explained.

RELATED: Frustrations rise, as sick Minnesotans are denied coronavirus tests

Many people are feeling anxious about their inability to be tested. And most experts agree we don't have a complete grasp of the number of cases because of the testing crunch.

"Members of our delegation have come forward to say this is not acceptable for Minnesota not to have the capacity to process our tests in large numbers right now," Rep. Angie Craig told KARE>

"Let's get the testing capacity to the point where we know what the numbers are, when we know community spread is occurring, so our state can have the ability to act as quickly as possible."

At his Sunday briefing from the White House, Vice President Pence said the priority for testing continues to be medical providers and first responders, plus people over the age of 65 with fevers or coughs.

"It’s important that the tests are available for people that are most in need, and for our health care workers and first responders," the Vice President told reporters.

"The testing that is available should only be done if for any reason you think you have the coronavirus."

He urged Americans who aren't showing symptoms to be patient because the federal government's testing capacity is increasing, and the network of cooperating laboratories is expanding as well.

"We will now have the access in the days ahead to more than 2,000 labs across the country that have the equipment today to process coronavirus tests."

Vice President Pence also pointed out that FEMA is working with agencies across the nation to help facilitate test sites outside of the normal hospital or clinic setting, in hopes of ramping up the number of samples collected.

The US House Saturday passed a bill that contains a slate of initiatives related to COVID-19.  The package includes funding to provide free coronavirus testing to uninsured patients. 

The bill, which will go to the US Senate Tuesday, also includes expanded family and medical leave for people who work for companies with fewer than 500 employees. The measure would provide tax relief to employers to facilitate the leave.

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.

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 keep tabs on the cases around the world here. Have a question? Text it to us at 763-797-7215.