Minnesota's state health lab tested another 10 samples Thursday morning for the novel coronavirus that is causing a global outbreak and is preparing for an increase based on new federal guidance that permits any testing that a doctor recommends.
The Minnesota Department of Health has requested $25 million to respond to the outbreak, including funding for 6,000 coronavirus tests this year. The amount is based on the state's history of testing during the H1N1 swine flu outbreak a decade ago.
"If it's anything like H1N1 … we could at the peak be running 300 tests per week," said Margaret Kelly, state deputy health commissioner.
So far, tests of 22 samples from suspect patients have found no cases in Minnesota of COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus that emerged in China in December and spread rapidly.
Federal guidance has changed, even since Monday when the state stopped sending samples to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and started its own testing.
At first, the CDC advised testing only for people with fever and respiratory symptoms who had traveled to China, Italy, Japan or South Korea, or who had been in close contact with such travelers.
Then it added hospitalized people whose illnesses weren't explained by other infections. Now the CDC and Vice President Mike Pence have removed such limits.
The expansion comes as good news for some Minnesota families, who had been left in limbo worrying that their illnesses were caused by the new coronavirus.
One family in Grand Rapids went into quarantine all week after a daughter returned home sick from studying in Florence, Italy. The CDC has discouraged nonessential travel to Italy, which has reported 2,500 cases and 80 deaths from COVID-19.
Testing had been refused at first but approved Thursday after the family received support from local public health and school officials.
Others were unsuccessful. One Iron Range mother went to her doctor Thursday because her 11-year-old son suffered a fever after a trip to Disney World last month. The doctor left the clinic room to call about testing and returned wearing goggles and a face mask but said the case didn't meet state criteria, the woman said.
The families told their stories confidentially because of concerns over being publicly linked to the coronavirus.
While the state lab will be able to test up to 100 samples per day, health officials are concerned about capacity and conserving testing for people who need it most.
The potential for confusion is high, as COVID-19 fears are coming while the influenza and RSV viruses are circulating along with common coronaviruses that cause colds every year.
To guide doctors, the state issued a health alert Thursday indicating that they should rule out influenza and other pathogens first, and still prioritize testing for now for people with relevant travel histories, patients with infections of unknown origins, and health care workers who treated infected patients.
When the state tests samples, it asks ill patients to stay home and keep away from others until the results come back. The test itself is completed in a day, but there can be delays in delivering samples from outstate clinics to the lab in St. Paul.
Others now under self-quarantine include two University of Minnesota students who flew home Tuesday after having contact in Europe with someone who had COVID-19.
After being alerted to a person with COVID-19 in Europe who had ties to Minnesota, state health officials determined the infected person had been in proximity to the U students. That meant they were at risk for infection.
State health officials then alerted the CDC's quarantine station at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, and learned that the students were in midflight back to Minnesota.
CDC officials evaluated the students after the plane landed and confirmed they had no symptoms. While the risk to other passengers was minimal, they will be notified if the students experience symptoms in the next two weeks.
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744