ROCHESTER, Minn. — Among the surprise revelations by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday, May 20, was that health officials will launch mobile units to expand their diagnostic testing, and that the state has had critical laboratory and personal protective equipment orders "picked off" by the federal government.
"There are issues," Walz said. "Just candidly, everybody's a little cautious talking about it, because they are a little bit nervous. It's a sad testament to the situation we're in. (But) these were on their way, and they were picked off somewhere in the chain by the federal government."
“No one all the way up to the Vice President (Mike Pence) has been able to tell me who picked them off," said Walz. "And we talked personally for 20 minutes."
Walz said that "high through-put" machines capable of rapidly testing thousands of samples were slated for Minnesota but mysteriously went elsewhere on higher orders.
High-placed members of Pence's Coronavirus Task Force, including U.S. Navy Vice Admiral James Polowczyk, attempted to track down the diverted machines and PPE supplies, according to Walz, but without success. "I had a sheepish CEO today kind of saying, 'Well, we have to (send them) where they tell us to send them.'"
Walz credited federal officials with assisting the state in procuring swabs and to some extent reagents, and added that "my instruction to my team is that is an obstacle that we have to work around." But he said the state's emergency response efforts have been hampered by equipment seizures and a lack of communication from the White House.
"I don't put these stories out there to complain about things getting picked off," Walz said. "When we do mention one of these, it's because we're frustrated. We had gowns and masks that were diverted. We ordered them, they were on the way to us, we had them, then somebody in the federal government steps in and they go elsewhere."
"I don't disagree with the philosophy that the federal government should have a plan for the entire 50 states, and put resources to where there's a crisis. But we've never seen that plan. We don't know why the White House would divert masks away, when Stearns County ranks among the top 10 counties in the country in infection rates."
Walz’ remarks came as he addressed the impression that Minnesota has fallen short in not reaching 20,000 daily tests and the news of protests by state nurses over re-use of personal protective equipment.
Walz clarified that the state set out to reach 5,000 tests daily by early May and is currently testing 6,000 a day on average, and expects to see an average 10,000 tests a day.
"If we're at 10,000 (tests daily), that's the highest state per capita in the union,” he said. “That gives me much more confidence that we are able to put out these fires when they show up, and be much more aggressive with them."
"They're in pretty good shape," he said of the state's PPE stores, "but it's a fine line. The biggest thing we can do is keep up social distancing, and don't get so we have to use these."
By the numbers
COVID-19 fatalities shot up again Wednesday as 29 more people succumbed to the illness in Minnesota.
One death each was reported in Stearns, Mower and Blue Earth counties, two each were reported in Washington and Anoka counties, six each in Dakota and Ramsey counties and 10 in Hennepin County.
"By the end of the month, a thousand Minnesotans will have died," Walz said. "The one thing we can control is how we act...we can assure those who get sick that when they get sick, when they go to the hospital, they will get what they need."
Of the new deaths, 26 were among patients in long-term care facilities. Currently, 635 of the state's 777 deaths from COVID-19 have occured in long term care. Walz recently launched a five-point "battle plan" to increase testing of long term care facilities.
State Sen. Karin Housley, R-South St. Paul, complained again Wednesday that the state's response to the death rate in long term care centers has been insufficient. Jan Malcolm, commissioner of the state health department, said the state has tested 7,000 residents and staff at 39 centers, with another 30 scheduled for next week.
Another 300 facilities have sought to get on the state's comprehensive testing schedule.
"We have been disappointed there has not been more incoming to the clinics. offering testing," Malcolm said. "One of the lessons we've taken from this is to get at populations that struggle to get access to health care...we're going to need to get mobile testing and get to them.
"We still have to get the message out that anybody with symptoms should be getting tested, but that volume has not materialized as quickly as it should have."
The state posted 649 new cases Wednesday on 5,503 tests.
"We've seen five consecutive days of slower rates of growth," Malcolm said. “It's far too early to declare we are on the downward slope . . . all of the models still say we're on the upswing, and anticipate the peak likely in middle of July, or anywhere from June to the middle of August."
This article has been corrected to state the number of long term care facilities seeking system-wide testing from the state health department.
As a public service, we’ve opened this article to everyone regardless of subscription status. If this coverage is important to you, please consider supporting local journalism by clicking on the subscribe button in the upper right-hand corner of the homepage.