Spit test: State opens first COVID-19 saliva testing facility in Duluth

A sign reads "Free COVID-19 testing today"
Signs behind the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center alert people to free COVID-19 testing Tuesday in Duluth, Minn. The Duluth site is Minnesota's first COVID-19 saliva testing location.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Until this week, getting tested for COVID-19 in Minnesota has meant a bit of discomfort.

Most tests statewide are conducted by a PPE-clad medical professional, swabbing a sample from deep in a patient’s nose or far in the back of their throat.

It’s not terrible, but it’s also not comfortable.

But starting Wednesday, Minnesota residents can be tested by spitting into a tube. 

Health officials are opening the state's first COVID-19 saliva testing site in Duluth.

It’s the first of 10 sites planned to open across Minnesota. Together, they'll more than double the state’s ability to test people for the coronavirus. 

Tables with cleaning spray are spaced apart in a large room.
A line of tables awaits people interested in getting tested for COVID-19 at the state's first saliva testing site.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Vault Health, the New Jersey-based company that has pioneered the saliva test, is partnering with the state Health Department to open the first of the testing sites at Duluth’s convention center. 

The idea is access: Patients don’t need to present insurance when they’re tested, it’s available to anyone regardless of symptoms and they aren’t charged. The whole process takes about 15 minutes.

"We've tried to remove every barrier,” said Shawn Baxley, vice president of field operations for Vault Health. “If you don't have insurance, that's OK. If you don't have a phone, that's OK. If you don't have an email, that's OK. We'll get you in and we'll get you tested and we'll get you results." 

Patients begin by scanning a bar code with their phone. That takes them to a registration website, where they enter basic demographic information and answer some health questions, including whether they’ve been exposed to anyone with COVID-19. 

Then, they open a small testing kit in a plastic bag. Inside is a small tube with a funnel attached to one end. The funnel also has a bar code that matches the patient’s registration. 

Then, what Baxley calls the "spit process," begins. 

"Some people get worried because it sounds like there's a projectile going in the air,” Baxley said. “This is not hawking a loogie or anything like that. This is a very civilized dribble into a funnel."

A woman sits at a table and spits into a vial.
Gloria Anderson of Cloquet, Minn., spits into a vial as she takes a COVID-19 saliva test Tuesday.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

People should refrain from eating or drinking for a half-hour before they’re tested. But Baxley suggests drinking plenty of water before that. Otherwise, it can take some time to fill up the 2mm vial with saliva. 

Then: Patients screw on the top of the tube, and a blue preservative drops into the spit. 

"This is what keeps their saliva stable for the ride back to the lab, to ensure it can be tested and we get accurate results," explained Baxley. 

The Duluth site is configured to test about 1,200 people per day. 

Amy Westbrook, the public health director for St. Louis County, said that extra testing capacity will be a big help. COVID-19 cases have risen steadily in Duluth since late July. 

A bar graph.
The total number of COVID-19 cases in St. Louis County, Minn.
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

"It is concerning we're seeing more community transmission,” she said, “especially as college-age students, our student body population has come back, [and we’ve seen] more transmission of unknown exposure."

That's when people don't know where they could have gotten infected.

"So this allows another opportunity for people to understand if they are infected, and then to take the necessary precautions to stay home and stay away from other people. So they're not passing it into the community,” Westbrook said, adding that increased testing should catch more positive cases, sooner.

This site in Duluth is just the first of 10 planned saliva testing sites across the state. The Department of Health is also partnering with Vault to open a saliva testing lab in Oakdale next month. 

When that opens, Assistant Commissioner Dan Huff said the state will have the capacity to process more than 50,000 tests a day. 

It's also expected to shorten the time to get results. It takes two to three days to process the test once it gets to a lab. 

A woman talks to a man wearing a face mask.
Gloria Anderson (left) shakes a vial after filling it with saliva at Minnesota's first COVID-19 saliva testing site Tuesday. Helping Anderson complete the test was Michael Beissenherz of Drug Free Sport and Vault Health.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Nasal swab tests will still be available statewide. This effort, Huff explained, will do more than just expand testing. 

"One of the challenges with testing is because everyone in the world is trying to test we have global supply shortages. It's really important that we diversify our testing strategies, so that if supplies become tight in one platform, we still have lots of platforms to use," Huff said. 

The state is spending more than $14 million on the effort, paid for with federal CARES Act funding. 

Huff said he doesn't know yet where the other nine saliva testing sites will be located. The state is also looking into mailing the testing kits to more people. They've already used them to test teachers and child care workers.  

“We want people to be tested whenever they feel it's appropriate, and especially if they're in contact with someone who was infected,” Huff said. “Or if they have symptoms, or if they believe they were exposed out in the community.” 

If you go: COVID-19 saliva testing in Duluth

Where: Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, 350 Harbor Drive, Duluth, MN 55802. Park in the small lot in the back near the harbor. 

When: Wednesdays through Fridays from noon to 7 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Cost: Free

How to prepare: Registration is not required, but is encouraged to avoid lines. Sign up here.

Do not eat, drink, smoke or chew gum for at least half an hour before your test.

Bring a smartphone if you have one, and insurance information. (You won’t be charged, but the state may bill your insurance company). 

More info: Minnesota Department of Health website


COVID-19 in Minnesota

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