ROCHESTER, Minn. — State officials Tuesday, Aug. 25, announced a plan to offer at-home and walk-up saliva testing for COVID-19 beginning in October.
As part of the deal, which is not yet finalized, the state plans to spend $14.66 million in CARES Act funding to build a testing lab and 10 walk-up sites across the state. The lab is to be operated by RUCDR Infinite Biologics, of Rutgers University, and administered by a mail-order system through the New York-based men's telehealth services company Vault Health.
Infinite Biologics holds the first FDA Emergency Use Authorization for a PCR saliva test to detect COVID-19. Vault Health operates the logistics and telehealth arm of the planned initiative, a Zoom-based test administration, sample retrieval and results delivery service.
“While testing alone will not suppress the virus, higher testing volumes are a central part of the state’s strategies to managing the virus,” Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said in a statement. “We’ve been successful so far at keeping our case numbers from increasing dramatically, as many other states have seen. But we know we have much more demand for testing than available testing today. And with school reopening in coming weeks, we will see an even greater demand for testing.”
At-home and walk-up saliva testing uses less personal protective equipment, avoids discomfort of nasal swabs and is said to be less prone to shortages. The announcement said that results would be emailed within three days. Reporting of positive tests to state health officials is also required.
The state believes the addition of a planned saliva testing lab in Oakdale, Minn., in Washington County would employ 250 people and process as many as 30,000 tests a day. Those results would be added to 20,000 daily test capacity of the joint University of Minnesota and Mayo Clinic testing partnership, for a 50,000-daily test capacity.
The state would build 10 sites at locations around the state to provide the test, which would also be used in mobile testing clinics. The state does not know the location of those sites at this time.
Telehealth uses of the test via mail shipping services would be arranged at a later time as well.
In a statement, health officials identified a projected goal of 63,000 tests a day capacity in order to suppress the virus in the state, but Malcolm said the state would also need to build out the capacity to contact trace such a high volume of tests. She added that testing alone cannot act as a replacement for continued observance of the guidance to wear masks, maintain social distancing and frequent hand washing.
Health officials acknowledge the state has yet to approach its current testing capacity, however, averaging just 14,000 tests a day with liberal guidelines for who may be tested.
The coming return to campus was depicted as one reason why the state will need an added testing capacity, but Google reviews for Vault's customer service, especially in regards to its promised 72-hour return times and parents seeking results required of returning college students, are poor. Reviews complain about unanswered emails, calls sent to voicemail, slow returns and lost tests.
During the media call Tuesday, Malcolm acknowledged that the national laboratories were the source of slow test turnaround in Minnesota, saying that, "I think our Minnesota labs have generally maintained a much better turnaround than the national laboratories."
"When it comes to Vault, they have been providing saliva tests for several months now," said Kate Brickman, MDH spokesperson. "Part of this plan involves the creation of a testing lab in Oakdale, Minn. So saliva tests would be tested locally, not sent out-of-state."
Brickman said she was not familiar with complaints about the turnaround time for Vault and referred further questions about complaints to a Vault media officer at a New York-based PR firm. Brickman said the Oakdale lab and 10 sites will be locally staffed, but that she was "not sure where their care center is now or where it will land."
The company plans to distribute the kits from Minnesota locations.
"If people have any issues while they seek a COVID test, be it with Vault or any other provider, they should contact MDH," Brickman said. "But this contract is about the state of Minnesota specifically reserving testing capacity with Vault for Minnesotans, so overall state officials feel very optimistic about this partnership."
This article has been amended to include a response from Vault Health CEO Jason Feldman that came after our deadline:
"The Google reviews from the past few weeks are not favorable of our company but all resulted from a shipping hiccup due to the recent hurricane in the Northeast, which have been resolved. We are the go to testing company for major Fortune 50 companies, sports leagues and universities. The opening of the lab in Minnesota will open up capacity for the state and for our promised turnaround time."
By the numbers
The state of Minnesota reported an additional 414 cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, Aug. 25. The new cases bring the state's laboratory-confirmed case total to 70,707.
The state also reported an additional eight deaths from COVID-19. The deaths were recorded among residents of Anoka, Becker, Hennepin, Nobles, Ramsey, Sherburne, St. Louis and Watonwan counties.
Just two of the eight deaths were among residents of long-term care. The death total in the state from the illness is now 1,779.
An additional 8,858 people were tested as of Tuesday, bringing the number of Minnesotans tested for the illness to 1,072,526.
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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.