ST. PAUL — An antibody test aimed at detecting whether a person has had the coronavirus could help put Minnesotans back to work, Gov. Tim Walz said Friday, April 3.
But until the test can be rolled out, the state will have to dull the blow to Minnesota's economy, Walz and state lawmakers said.
Mayo Clinic Laboratories has said it will have the serology test available Monday, April 6, that would assess whether a person has had COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. And while additional research is needed, experts say having previously contracted the disease could make a person less likely to get it again, at least in the short term.
“If we can identify who has immunity, that’s a gamechanger,” Walz said.
But with tests at least weeks out for many, workers and business owners hit by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and executive actions said they needed more immediate help to keep them afloat.
Minnesota has seen unprecedented demand in the state's unemployment insurance program, economic development officials told a Minnesota Senate COVID-19 Response working group. And with many out of work or losing money because they've had to close down, business leaders said they hoped state lawmakers could help them until their allowed to get up and running again.
"I became a business owner because never in my wildest dreams did I believe that my idea of a children's play cafe would be considered a danger to society and closed by an executive order for reasons far beyond my control," Mandy Wroolie, owner of Minisota Play Café in Champlin, told lawmakers. "If the government doesn't do more to help small business owners, it is going to kill off the American entrepreneurial spirit living within our next generation."
State officials said they said they continued to work to get everyone who needed financial support after layoffs or furloughs state support. And they acknowledged the rapid demand for support had overwhelmed their systems.
“We’ll work around the clock for every Minnesotan to make sure we can speed that process up,” Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove said, noting long holds for those attempting to phone in with questions and issues logging onto an application online.
Unemployment insurance claims in the state increased by 320,043 since March 16. And the sectors hardest hit were those working in food preparation, health care, sales and service, administrative support fields and personal care service. The number constitutes almost 11% of the state's total non-farm workers.
Grove said on average, applicants have received the check within one to two weeks. And he encouraged those who are able to apply through the department's website rather than by phone due to a shortage in staff able to field a wave of calls. He said 50 additional employees were looped in to assist in managing applications this week and 25 more would come on in the coming days.
On average, applicants prior to the peak in applications received $441 a week from the program, but Grove said the figure was lower recently due to the different professions seeking assistance. Minnesotans on the program can receive up to half their weekly wage, up to $750. Federal legislation is expected to boost that rate and could help ensure state unemployment fund can support unemployed workers longer and prevent the fund from running out, Grove said.
The surge in unemployment applications and concerns from independent contractors and self-employed workers came as the department of health reported that 789 Minnesotans had tested positive for COVID-19 and 22 had died from the illness. That's out of 24,227 that have been tested, which likely undercounts the number of Minnesotans with the disease or who've had the disease, officials said.
Walz said the orders to keep workers in non-essential fields at home and to close bars, dine-in restaurants and areas of public amusement were aimed at giving the state time to build up the health care system ahead of an anticipated peak in COVID-19 cases. He said the stay in place order would likely be extended beyond the April 10 end date and noted that the state would continue working to ease the burden to workers and business owners.
“I know these actions are painful, they’re painful both social isolation-wise, they are painful economically,” Walz said. “The stress and the disruption you’ve been feeling is unprecedented.”