Asst. health commissioner: ‘We want everyone in the state to get tested’

three men stand in a room wearing masks
Assistant Health Commissioner Dan Huff (center) encourages all Minnesotans who feel they need a COVID-19 test to get one at the newly opened testing center at the Minneapolis Convention Center in Minneapolis on Monday. Tests will be free to all Minnesotans and results will be available in 24-48 hours.
Kathryn Styer Martinez | MPR News

The number of places where Minnesotans can get COVID-19 tests is growing. Gov. Tim Walz announced Monday that more than a dozen new sites would open around the state in the coming weeks, in addition to several already in service. Those tests are free, and don’t require insurance. Meanwhile, mail-order tests are expected to be available statewide later this month.

Of course, you can also schedule a test through your medical provider — and taken together, the range of options can be dizzying. So how do you pick which COVID-19 test to get? To answer that question, MPR News host Cathy Wurzer spoke with Assistant State Health Commissioner Dan Huff.

The conversation below has been edited for clarity and concision.

There are a number of options for COVID-19 testing now, depending upon where you live. So the first question: Do we have the testing capacity we need right now, where we need it?

If you remember back in April, the governor talked about his moon shot, where we wanted to get 20,000 tests a day capacity in Minnesota. Now we're up to about 70,000 tests a day capacity. So we are rapidly building out and expanding capacity, so that every Minnesotan can get the test they need.

What is the guidance right now for testing? If I have symptoms, do I go get a test? If I just want to visit my grandma, should I get a test?

The answer is yes to both of those. If you have symptoms, you need to isolate and then get tested as soon as possible, and stay in isolation until you have your test results. If you're curious, if you feel you may have been exposed to someone, if you want to visit Grandma, any of those things, go get tested. In fact, we want everyone in the state to get tested at least once.

Now, how should you decide which type of test to get? There seem to be several.

Yes. You could always go through your health care provider, but the state is offering a variety of testing options. We have both nasal and saliva [tests.]

Now one thing about the nasal tests, these are not the brain ticklers. This is where they take a little swab, like a Q-tip, and just put it a little bit up your nose. So it tickles, but it does not hurt.

Then we have the saliva test, where you fill up a little vial with your spit. We have them throughout the state, so look at what's convenient to you, what's closest to you or if you have a preference for one over the other. We're also, as you mentioned, going to be rolling out mail-order saliva testing. In fact, we have that right now in 23 counties and Red Lake, and we hope to actually have that running by next week for every Minnesotan.

There were concerns early on that saliva tests were not as accurate as the ones that use the nasal swabs. Is that still a concern?

No. So one of the cornerstones of Minnesota's response is everything we do is validated by our scientists at the Health Department. So the back of the house, or the lab part of testing—whether it be nasal or saliva—is very similar. It's PCR testing, that's molecular testing, where we're looking for the genetic material of the virus. These tests are about 98 percent accurate, and regardless of whether you're having saliva or nasal [tests], the accuracy is about the same.

What's turnaround time?

Turnaround time for our saliva site is between 24 and 48 hours. We still have our contract with Mayo and the University of Minnesota with similar turnaround times.

So just the bottom line here, Dan, is that the state of Minnesota wants people to get tested in order to pinpoint where some of the infection clusters are?

Yeah, so one of the the real challenging and pernicious things about this disease is so many people can have it and never know it. These are asymptomatic spreaders, and to no fault of their own, they may be spreading the disease without even knowing it. So that's why we want people to get tested.

Especially if you're 18 to 35, we're asking that you get tested before Thanksgiving, and then again before the end of the year because you're healthy, you're young, you're more likely to be asymptomatic. Because you're social out there visiting with friends, it's likely that you will spread it. So we ask that everyone in that age group get tested, so that you can know if you need to isolate, so you can protect others.

For more information on COVID-19 testing in Minnesota, visit mn.gov/COVID19.

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