With kids back in school, testing mandated at some workplaces and the Delta version pushing cases higher, Minnesota is seeing some of the highest demands for coronavirus testing since the pandemic began.
Store shelves are swiftly cleared of tests, and social media is a Twitter with questions about the most convenient ways to see if a snooze or a headache is COVID-19: whether mass testing like the St. Long lines at landmarks? (Generally not.) Is anyone else having trouble prescribing tests through their doctor or pharmacy? (Sometimes.) How convenient and valuable are for-profit companies that offer testing? (It varies.)
Yet there is a free trial program that will deliver a sputum test (no irritating nasal swab) to your home anywhere in Minnesota and then email you in a time frame comparable to these others.
This is the state’s at-home saliva testing program, run through the Minnesota Department of Health, Vault Medical Services, and local laboratories. This is similar to at-home testing programs undertaken by dozens of other states, including Wisconsin last year, when the nation began to exit a testing shortage that plagued the pandemic’s early months.
The Department of Health estimates the program will cost at least $14 million by the end of 2021, all paid for by federal funds, with the ability to pay additional expenses for health insurance companies. There are no co-payments or upfront costs or billing costs of any kind from the test takers, and you can take as many as you want.
My family has been doing these tests, usually every week or so, since our son returned to school in person last year, and we’ve found them to be the most convenient way to test. And my baby has become a champion in accumulating saliva.
All you need is an email address and some kind of computer device with Zoom video capabilities.
Yet the vast majority of Minnesotans do not get themselves tested in this way.
As of September 20, only a little over 2 percent of Minnesota’s COVID-19 tests reported by laboratories were through the free at-home testing program.
Here’s how it works:
Quick Delivery & Pro Tips
Once you’ve set up an account on VaultHealth.com, you can order an online test by answering a few questions. (Pro tip: If entering all your insurance information becomes annoying, just say you don’t have your card to go fast.)
It gets delivered to your doorstep by door dash. Technically this can take up to 24 hours, but I’ve found that if you order your tests on the morning of a weekday, you’ll receive it that day, sometimes before noon. The test kit is a plastic tube with a small spit funnel and a few other items.
Then you choose a time when you will neither eat nor drink for half an hour. (The pieces of food and their after-effects make saliva too sticky for the lab testing process.)
Pro Tip: Now’s the time to get your saliva flowing. Frying bacon works best for me, but smelling vinegar, or any food aromas—or even just thinking of something savory—can work.
Next, go to your Vault account and click “Meet a Provider”. This starts a Zoom video chat session with a Vault contractor, who is either a registered nurse, a nurse practitioner, a physician assistant or a medical assistant. You’ll usually have to wait about five minutes for one of these people to be free. I have found that the wait can vary from zero which takes 20 minutes. It’s a good idea to have something useful to keep you busy.
dry mouth panic
When the test supervisor arrives, you answer a few questions – perhaps able to keep a pool of saliva while talking. Then they ask you to spit into the tube, usually while they watch.
Yes, awkward, silly and, for novices, surprisingly high pressure. For the first time, suddenly my mouth got dry.
“The more you do it, the better you get,” said Kandace Grunke, a registered nurse who lives in the West Metro and has been on the Vault side of a Zoom call. Grounke now works as regional clinical manager for Vault, which has approximately 650 nationwide sputum supervisors.
You’re so good at it that you can, as my 11-year-old son likes to say, “one-shot it,” collecting enough saliva in your mouth to fill the tube in a spit. Grunke confirms what many of us parents have seen: Kids get a kick out of that—and they can be competitive, bragging about their spitting skills to their friends.
Once you fill the tube with spit, you follow the supervisor’s instructions to package it in the included packaging and UPS shipping envelope. You can arrange for UPS pickup, or, for quick action, drop it off at a UPS drop box or UPS store. All UPS stores have a dedicated bin for kits, so you don’t have to wait in line. Still, it is a part of the process that requires you to leave your home.
You’ll get an email update when the lab — Infinity BiologyX in Oakdale — will receive your sample, and when the test is complete, letting you know whether it was negative or positive.
How long for the result?
When it’s all set up, you can order your test in the morning and get the results the next day. But it usually takes longer.
According to executives at Vault and Infinity BiologyX, demand for the test has nearly doubled in recent months, increasing the typical turnaround time from four hours to nine hours for Oakdale Lab. But it does not include shipping time.
Generally speaking, you should expect to receive your results two days after you leave your sample with UPS. So the whole process, from ordering your test to knowing if you have COVID, can take three days.
It’s been an annoyingly long time for some people trying to figure out whether they should isolate after coming into contact with someone with the coronavirus.
The Downside: Not a ‘Rapid’ Test
These vault sputum tests are not 15-minute rapid tests that work more like pregnancy tests. Those tests are hard to find right now, although schools can get free supplies, and they’ll soon be more widely available to everyone.
These sputum tests are polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests. They are the gold standard, but they require a laboratory and trained personnel to process them.
when to use
The upside is that they are more accurate – especially for people without symptoms. Rapid antigen tests work best for people with symptoms in the early stages of infection.
In other words, if you’re thinking about whether you’ve picked up the SARS-CoV-2 virus from someone but you feel fine, or if you regularly commute to school, work, or any other activity, Checking your baby and feeling well, you don’t want a rapid test. You want a sputum test despite the time delay.
If you want the fastest PCR test results, it’s best to get tested somewhere in person as the sample usually gets to the lab quickly.
tales from the vault
So what is it like staring at people spitting in tubes all day long?
Yes, there are tales, Grunke said. There was a time early in the pandemic when she had to talk a couple through testing amid sketch cell service while they were stranded in a desert national park, unsure when they’d be able to go, especially if they had COVID .
The funniest stories often happen with children. “Little kids are the most adorable and memorable,” she said. “Kids love it when they are able to add enough saliva to a shot. They love to compete with their parents.”
There is risk in this. My son actually had a saliva “accident” last week while waiting for the spit supervisor to come on Zoom. Yes, a puddle of frothy saliva on the floor.
“I loved it,” said Grounke, who acknowledged that Zoom’s fatigue could be a downside. “But I’m very much a people person. You engage with patients all the time. If you approach it with a ‘Oh my god, I have to see people spitting all day’, it’s probably that.” Not a job you would enjoy.
“Knowing that you are part of the solution to a pandemic and perhaps part of history, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to do.”
How to Get a Free COVID Home Test
At-home coronavirus tests are available for all Minnesotans through a state program.