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Wisconsin Bolsters COVID Testing, Tracing With New Work

Wisconsin residents can order at-home COVID-19 testing kits for free, state officials said Tuesday as they prepared to launch a mobile app Wednesday to allow people who test positive to anonymously notify close contacts.

by David Wahlberg, The Wisconsin State Journal / December 23, 2020
Interior of Wisconsin's state capitol in Madison. David Kidd

(TNS) — Wisconsin residents can order at-home COVID-19 testing kits for free, state officials said Tuesday as they prepared to launch a mobile app Wednesday to allow people who test positive to anonymously notify close contacts.

"These are great new tools Wisconsinites can use to fight this virus," Gov.  Tony Evers  said. He urged people to celebrate Christmas and other holidays only with those in their household and with others online, avoiding large in-person gatherings, even as vaccines begin to arrive.

"While we can see the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, we are not in the clear yet," Evers said. "One positive test at the dinner table can turn into 10."

In a grim reminder of the danger of the outbreak, the state reported a daily record of 120 COVID-19 deaths. Given that eight deaths were reported Monday and 18 Sunday — well below the daily average of 60 — the new tally likely represents a lag. It brings the state's total pandemic deaths to 4,545.

November was the state's deadliest month of the pandemic, with 1,282 COVID-19 deaths. With Tuesday's deaths, the total so far in December is 1,232.

Under a state contract with Vault Medical Services, saliva collection kits are now available to anyone who lives in Wisconsin, with or without coronavirus symptoms, at no cost, Evers said.

Residents can order a collection kit online, at go.madison.com/testing, and have it shipped to their home. The kit contains instructions on how to collect the saliva, which includes a video call with a testing supervisor through Vault Medical Services. People will ship their sample back via UPS drop box to the lab for processing.

Vault can bill people's health insurance or send the bill to the state, which will cover the cost for those without insurance, state officials said.

"We also know that getting to a health care provider or a community testing site isn't easy for everyone, and that's why we are excited to offer this new option to make testing even more accessible for folks across our state," Evers said in a statement.

A saliva test is similar to a nasal swab test received at a medical clinics or a community testing site such as Alliant Energy Center. Like a nasal swab test, a saliva test determines whether people have an active COVID-19 infection and can spread it to others.

The free contact tracing app, called WI Exposure Notification, will be available for download in the Google Play store. Users of iPhones can turn on the app in their phone's settings.

The app uses Bluetooth technology to anonymously share signals with other smartphones using the app nearby. Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 will receive a code that, once input into their phone, will send an anonymous notification to any other phones that have been in proximity for at least 15 minutes while the individual may have been contagious. Bluetooth must be enabled for the app to work properly.

Secretary of Health Services  Andrea Palm  encouraged everyone to activate the app, saying it will complement contact-tracing efforts by local health departments.

"It does allow us all to get a jump on what we do next, how quickly we can act to isolate, quarantine, to take those next steps to get ourselves tested," Palm said.

A new strain of the coronavirus found in Britain, which may be more transmissible among people, has not been discovered in Wisconsin, said Dr.  Ryan Westergaard , a chief medical officer with the state Department of Health Services. A small proportion of samples in the state undergo the genome sequencing required to identify the strain, he said.

Because of the limited analysis, the lack of finding the strain "doesn't mean that it's not here," he said. "So far we've not seen it."

Meanwhile, Wisconsin is expected to receive about 35,000 doses of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine this week after getting about 50,000 doses last week. The vaccine is primarily going to hospitals to immunize health care workers.

Another 16,000 doses of the just-approved Moderna vaccine are expected to arrive this week, out of about 101,000 doses anticipated in coming weeks. Some will go to health care workers and some, starting next week, will be used to vaccinate nursing home residents.

The Wisconsin Office of the Commissioner of Insurance reaffirmed Tuesday that the COVID-19 vaccine will be provided at no cost for all Wisconsin residents. Health insurers will be prohibited from applying cost sharing for the vaccine or for any costs associated with administration of the vaccine, and anyone without health insurance will also be able to get vaccinated without an out-of-pocket cost, the office said.

"As distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine continues, we want to ensure that every Wisconsinite knows they have access to the vaccine without any cost barriers," Wisconsin Insurance Commissioner  Mark Afable  said in a statement.

(c)2020 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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