ROCHESTER, Minn. — State health officials have formally advised all who attended a protest or large gathering over the weekend to get a test for COVID-19, whether they have symptoms or not.
"We want to convey our strong encouragement for people who participated in some way in a demonstration or in any large gathering in any way —such as a vigil, clean-up events, folks providing water or foods to protesters, anyone who participated in these large gatherings — we are strongly encouraging you to get tested for COVID-19," said state Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm on a press call Wednesday, June 3.
The announcement comes two days after health officials said Monday that they would wait a few days before offering guidance, in recognition of the need to allow those who may have been exposed to develop a testable presence of coronavirus.
Malcolm advised people seeking tests to visit their primary care provider, and if they do not have a primary care provider, to consult the state COVID-19 website for directions to a testing center nearby.
Also Wednesday, Malcolm addressed a question by a caller during a radio interview who asked if the use of tear gas and pepper spray by law enforcement — weapons causing the shedding of tears, runny nose and coughing — likely worsened the transmission of COVID-19 among protesters .
During the press call that afternoon, the state's leading health official declined to negatively characterize the use of chemical irritants by Minnesota law enforcement during the civil unrest, practices which have been widely described as aggressive and indiscriminate.
"It is absolutely true that certain irritants could make people cough more or sneeze more or eyes water more, which if they were already a carrier, might exacerbate the chance of transmission," Malcolm said. "And certainly irritants on anybody with a respiratory condition of any kind exacerbates the problem. I believe that law enforcement was mindful of that, and being as judicious as they could. It's a very difficult situation obviously with a great deal going on at once."
This is at odds with footage showing panic created as often peaceful crowds faced tear gas, as well as footage showing Minneapolis police randomly spraying protesters from their cars with pepper spray.
Malcolm declined to provide a Minnesota Health Department position against the use of tear gas or pepper spray on civilians.
"I think the best we can do," Malcolm said, "is ask law enforcement to be mindful of that (the added tears and coughing produced), just so that they understand what the nature of our concern is."
Health officials on Wednesday said they had considered but decided against erecting mass-testing venues at the site of protests, but added that "we will have more information soon on community based testing."
Asked about a recent University of Minnesota finding released Wednesday showing that hydroxychloroquine is ineffective in the prevention of COVID-19, Minnesota Department of Health Director of Infectious Disease Kris Ehresmann (who said she had not yet read the study) said, "it's just a reminder that its very important that as new therapies are thought to be an option, that they go through the clinical trial process before being touted as beneficial. This is an example where the clinical trial process is very important in identifying what may not work."
Health officials also on Wednesday warned Minnesotans that scammers have begun texting residents while claiming to be from contact tracing workers from the health department. Ehresmann said the department will always call before texting, and that Minnesotans should ignore and delete any texts from people claiming to be from the health department who you have not already spoken with on the phone first.
The state reported 372 new cases and 14 deaths from COVID-19 on Wednesday. The new deaths raise the state total to 1,086.
One death each was reported in Washington, Stearns, Ramsey and Goodhue counties. Two deaths each were reported in Anoka and Crow Wing counties, and six deaths were reported in Hennepin County. Ten of the 14 deaths occurred among residents of long-term care facilities, but none were in nursing homes.
More than 265,000 Minnesotans have now been tested for COVID-19, a figure equal to roughly 5% of the state population. The health department now believes that 5% of the population has COVID-19. The laboratory-confirmed case number now sits at 25,870
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Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 hotline: 651-201-3920.
COVID-19 discrimination hotline: 833-454-0148
Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 website: Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) website.