Minnesota is opening three more free COVID-19 testing centers next week in response to public concern over the new, fast-spreading omicron variant and hourlong lines at existing state sites.
Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday said adding new sites in Anoka, Cottage Grove and North Branch is necessary to increase state surveillance of viral spread and alert people to their infection status so they can take steps to protect others.
“Testing is a key tool for Minnesotans looking to protect themselves and their loved ones from COVID-19 — especially the new, contagious omicron variant,” Walz said.
Some of Minnesota’s 20 existing COVID-19 testing sites have reported overwhelming demand, especially after the holidays as people want to check their infection status following family and group gatherings.
Lines at the Minneapolis Convention Center snaked down the hallway Tuesday afternoon, stretching to a second entrance at the downtown site. Those who had booked appointments in advance online were in and out of the testing site within 10 minutes while walk-ins faced long waits. One woman getting her first COVID-19 test complained about waiting for almost an hour, unaware that she could jump to the front of the line because she had snagged an appointment online.
Walz on Tuesday said his expansion plan included another 1.8 million rapid at-home tests to distribute to schools and 150,000 kits to use in communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
Pandemic indicators in Minnesota could be distorted over the next week by the impact of the holidays, obscuring the initial impact of omicron. The state on Tuesday reported a 12% positivity rate of COVID-19 testing for the week ending Dec. 27, a record high for the key indicator of pandemic severity in 2021. Reduced testing over Christmas likely inflated that rate.
The 36 COVID-19 deaths reported on Tuesday in Minnesota make December the state’s deadliest month of the pandemic in 2021. The 874 deaths reported so far in December exceed the 852 in November and the 775 last January, when limited supplies of COVID-19 vaccines were first being distributed.
State health officials encouraged more Minnesotans to seek COVID-19 vaccines and boosters doses, noting that the death toll could have been worse this winter if not for the immunity protection people gained from the shots. Minnesota’s worst month in the pandemic was Dec. 2020, when vaccine first became available and the state reported 1,800 COVID-19 deaths at the end of its severe second wave.
Vaccines don’t entirely prevent coronavirus infections — especially those involving the delta variant and the new and fast-spreading omicron variant — but research has found that they substantially reduce risks of severe illness, hospitalization and death.
HealthPartners on Tuesday reported that 73% of its 727 COVID-19 hospitalizations in Minnesota and western Wisconsin over the past month were unvaccinated people. Among the 99 patients placed on ventilators because of severe breathing difficulties, 89% were unvaccinated.
Nearly 70% of Minnesotans 5 and older are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among adult recipients, nearly 51% have received booster doses — which were recommended because of evidence that immunity wanes around six months after the initial shots.
The new omicron infection is likely to spread widely, even among fully vaccinated people, but more vaccinations will hopefully reduce severe illnesses, which in turn will reduce deaths and the burden on hospitals, said Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
“We still have a substantial number of people who have not been vaccinated at all yet,” he said, “and I think that is going to be a huge challenge.”
COVID-19 hospitalizations have gradually declined over the past month in Minnesota, reaching 1,370 on Monday. However, COVID and non-COVID patients have still combined to fill 97% of the state’s 1,012 available intensive care beds. Health officials are concerned that a new wave of omicron infections could not only increase hospitalizations again but reduce bed capacity by putting many infected health care workers temporarily off their jobs.
Walz was scheduled Tuesday afternoon to visit a nursing home in the Twin Cities where trained members of the National Guard were increasing capacity so that more patients could be transferred out of hospitals when they were ready for step-down rehabilitation care.
Tuesday’s COVID-19 update from the Minnesota Department of Health added 16,204 new coronavirus infections that were identified over the extended New Year’s weekend. The state in total has reported 1,045,170 infections and 10,600 COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.
A short-term increase in infections occurred last January after the holidays and is expected again this year, but health officials worry that omicron could result in a prolonged rise in COVID-19 cases as well.
Staff writer Kelly Smith contributed to this report.