The Perfect Enemy | Minnesota’s first COVID-19 test-to-treat site opens Friday
July 7, 2022

Minnesota’s first COVID-19 test-to-treat site opens Friday

Minnesota’s first COVID-19 test-to-treat site opens Friday  Star TribuneView Full Coverage on Google News

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Minnesota’s busiest COVID-19 testing center in Brooklyn Park is adding a new test-to-treat option Friday by which vulnerable people with coronavirus infections can receive immediate antiviral treatment.

Gov. Tim Walz toured the site Thursday and urged Minnesotans to take advantage of the resource, among the first set up in the U.S. with federal support and medical staff. Test-to-treat options will be added to community testing centers next week in Duluth and Moorhead.

“This is one of the best things that we can do,” he said. “The test-and-treat sites are highly successful at reducing hospitalizations, reducing those long-term effects from COVID.”

People testing positive will be evaluated for a five-day course of Paxlovid, an antiviral that reduces COVID-19 risks if taken early in the course of infection. Those at higher risk because of age or underlying health status will be given prescriptions to fill at their own pharmacies or across the parking lot in Brooklyn Park at Cub or Target stores.

Walz said those stores have received extra supplies and the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy is evaluating steps to make the pills available at the testing site.

The treatment option comes at a hopeful time in the pandemic in Minnesota. The seven-day rate of newly identified infections has declined since mid-May at the peak of a spring COVID-19 wave that wasn’t as severe as prior waves.

COVID-19 hospitalizations leveled off at 406 on Thursday, and included a higher rate of patients who were admitted for other reasons and only test positive upon routine screening. Only 41 patients, or 10%, needed intensive care. The ICU usage rate had been 30% earlier in the pandemic.

State health leaders are mindful that declines in COVID-19 over the past two summers were followed by new waves of illness in the fall when schools resumed and people spent more time indoors. Test-to-treat can not only help individuals recover faster but also take the pressure off hospitals if that pattern repeats itself, said Cheryl Petersen-Kroeber, director of emergency preparedness and response for the Minnesota Department of Health.

“We want to make sure we don’t overload our health care system ever again,” she said. “We know that they’re busy. They’re not COVID busy, but we can’t throw COVID on top of that.”

One challenge is the emergence of BA.4 and BA.5 coronavirus subvariants that caused widespread infections in South Africa, even in people with recent infections or vaccinations. Genomic sequencing of a sampling of positive COVID-19 specimens has found 43 BA.4 cases statewide and 31 BA.5 cases that are concentrated in the Twin Cities along with central and northwest Minnesota.

Both variants have caused a low rate of severe illness, though, and the hope in Minnesota is that declining severity will allow COVID-19 eventually to be managed like influenza in traditional medical clinics.

Walz said for now the special test-to-treat centers are needed because people have encountered barriers to antiviral treatments. He thanked the legislature for authorizing funding to continue the state’s COVID-19 response and keep community testing sites open for at least another year.

“This is the place to go” for treatment, he said. “You walk in and this whole process can be less than an hour.”

The Brooklyn Park site received a steady stream of people seeking testing Wednesday, though below peak times in the pandemic when lines stretched outside and around the corner of the strip mall.

Mubera Salihbasic of Coon Rapids said she won’t forget the COVID-19 illness earlier in the pandemic that left her with extreme pain in her bones and no options for treatment other than fever-reducing drugs.

“It would have been nice” to have had antivirals back then, said Salihbasic, who was seeking negative tests for herself and four children at the Brooklyn Park site so they could fly to Bosnia and Herzegovina to meet their grandparents.

Andy and Sio Knaeble sought rapid antigen tests at the center because of COVID-like symptoms and fatigue, and headed out to their car to await an email in 15 minutes with the results. They hoped for negatives but, at ages 60 and 52, planned to return with any positives and ask if they could qualify for antivirals.

“I’m all for feeling better as quick as possible,” Andy Knaeble said.

Paxlovid was in such short supply this winter that it was rationed for people at extreme risks of severe COVID-19 because of their ages or medical conditions that weakened their immune systems.

Supplies have improved and providers now can prescribe them at their discretion. More than 60,000 courses of Paxlovid have been delivered to Minnesota and roughly 24,000 remain available. More than 20,000 courses of the less-effective molnupiravir antiviral remain available as well.

Antiviral supplies for the federal test-to-treat sites are in addition to these state allocations. Age is a qualifying consideration for antivirals because COVID-19 has been harshest on the elderly. More than 80% of Minnesota’s 12,701 COVID-19 deaths have been in seniors, including seven of nine reported on Thursday.

Diabetes, heart and lung diseases, and other conditions also increase COVID-19 risks and are considerations for antiviral therapy. Paxlovid has received federal emergency use authorization for people 12 and older who aren’t taking certain long-term medications that could cause harmful interactions.

People with positive at-home test results can come to the sites to be considered for Paxlovid. Federal and state websites list locations of other providers who offer the antivirals as well.