Walz: People need 'patience' about testing supply amid omicron surge

Gov. Tim Walz says the state and its primary COVID-19 testing provider were not caught off guard by a surge in demand that has led to shortages of at-home tests and long lines at state sites.

Instead, he said states and the federal government are competing for a limited testing supply in a way that reminds of the earliest days of the pandemic.

"I ask Minnesotans for just a little bit of patience here," Walz told reporters during a visit to a long-term care facility in Maplewood, the governor's first public event since coming out of quarantine period after being infected with COVID-19 on Dec. 20. "We do need to be realistic. We're going to see more people requesting a test than at any point in the pandemic."

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said she expects the omicron surge will not peak until the end of January. Testing supply will be "tight for a few weeks" until then, she said.

Minnesota will open three new testing sites next week along with those already open. One site will open at the former Nike outlet store in North Branch on Jan. 10, while the state has not announced locations or opening dates for the two other sites in Anoka and Cottage Grove. The state is also sending out 1.8 million at-home test kits for families through school districts, the Walz administration said.

Minnesota's seven-day positivity rate -- the percentage of tests coming back positive -- is already more than 15 percent, a level never seen here throughout the pandemic.

Omicron is more transmissible than previous variants but appears to cause more mild cases. Minnesota is at the start of this latest wave, while other states have been in it for a week or two longer.

Half of the 16,000 cases reported Tuesday in Minnesota -- a number that counts four days of testing last week -- came from the seven-county Twin Cities Metro, state data indicate.

While surging cases and quarantine periods threaten in-person school instruction, forced thousands of flight cancelations, and led many businesses to temporarily shut down for a lack of staff, the most widely watched metric during the pandemic has been hospitalizations.

As of Monday, 1,370 people were in Minnesota hospitals with COVID-19. That is up slightly from a New Year's Day low of 1,311, after hitting a high of 1,680 in early December during the recent Delta variant wave.

People who develop symptoms should seek a testing appointment, assume they have COVID-19 in the meantime, and stay home, Malcolm said.

"Assume that you have COVID-19 if you have any symptoms at all, because with this amount of virus in the state, it’s very possible you do," she said.

It became clear Tuesday that Minnesota officials have grown frustrated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's changing guidance on quarantine periods for vaccinated individuals who test positive. Over the holidays, the CDC said vaccinated people can leave quarantine after five days with a negative test, a change from the previous 10-day rule.

But the new guidance has caused confusion with business owners, school administrators, and public health officials across the country.

Walz said he and other governors "pushed hard" during a call with White House officials Tuesday to make the guidance clearer.

"If you would've heard the governors on the White House call today, every governor asked about this," Walz said.