UMN halfway to COVID-19 testing promise

The University and Mayo Clinic first partnered in April with the goal of providing 20,000 diagnostic tests per day.

Illustration by Sarah Mai

Sarah Mai

Illustration by Sarah Mai

Madeline Deninger

Although the University of Minnesota has not reached its promised COVID-19 testing capacity as part of a state-funded partnership, officials say the number is keeping up with demand.

The University, along with the Mayo Clinic and the Minnesota Department of Health, unveiled its goal in April to increase testing capacity to 20,000 molecular tests per day. Molecular tests can tell if a patient is currently infected. As part of the partnership, the University announced it would have a capacity for 10,000 of those tests, but its current capacity is around 5,000. 

Gov. Tim Walz called the partnership a “Minnesota moonshot” and said it would be key to helping reopen the state and learn about the virus’s spread. 

“The difference, I think, in Minnesota is the quality of the infrastructure of our healthcare systems and the ability of the research communities that surround them with the University of Minnesota and other institutions … to put together a plan that actually gives us the best chance, I believe, to do that massive surveillance testing that we’re seeing works in other countries,” Walz said during the announcement.

In order to reach the goal of 20,000 molecular tests per day, the state awarded the partnership $36 million. 

University medical school spokesperson Mary Koppel said supply chain issues are the reason the school has not gone up to a 10,000 test capacity. The University currently only has one “Panther” machine, which identifies whether a virus is infectious. 

Once the school can acquire two more Panther machines, it can reach its capacity goal, Koppel said. But the school is meeting the current demand for these tests, Koppel said, noting the capacity is not necessarily how many tests are actually performed on a given day. 

The Mayo Clinic currently has a capacity of 10,000 molecular tests per day in Minnesota. Dr. William Morice, president of Mayo Clinic Laboratories, said testing supply shortages can pose a challenge for any party given the worldwide demand. 

“There’s still challenges in the supply chain in terms of getting the necessary equipment and chemicals reagents from the vendors … to actually be able to do the testing. That’s the biggest bottleneck right now … for anyone, including the University of Minnesota and Mayo,” Morice said. 

Getting the tests to patients can be another challenge, Morice said. 

The University, Mayo and other agencies throughout the state are currently working to get testing out to populations that might not otherwise have access by operating through a centralized “command center,” Koppel said. 

The command center helps facilitate testing at places like long-term care facilities and prisons. In response to large gatherings and demonstrations following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the command center helped provide free testing in the Twin Cities to those who attended. 

Some of the University’s Medical Reserve Corps members also traveled to Mower County last week to help with testing in a possible COVID-19 hot spot.

In total, 266 agencies throughout the state have performed around 515,000 tests as of Sunday. 

“That’s really something the governor wanted … basically the University and Mayo should kind of serve as sort of the foundational elements but to have every health system in the state … contributing,” Morice said.