Home test, exposure app among state’s new pandemic-battling tools

    A Christmas tree decorated with gold ornaments, lights and a COVID-19 face mask
    Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay

    Wisconsin is getting a few little presents in the midst of the continuing pandemic: A new home COVID-19 test. An app that reports if you’ve been exposed to someone with the coronavirus. And confirmation that the new COVID-19 vaccines will be free for the people who get them. 

    But as state officials unwrapped those gifts, they warned against complacency in the coming holiday week.

    “While we can see the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, we are not in the clear yet,” Gov. Tony Evers said Tuesday. As with Thanksgiving in November, he urged people to celebrate in person with only the members of their own household, avoiding parties and other gatherings with others and opting instead for virtual get-togethers.

    “One positive [COVID-19] test at the dinner table can turn into 10 — so please, don’t risk it,” Evers said.

    The numbers of positive tests in the state have continued to decline, the state Department of Health Services (DHS) reported Tuesday. There were 2,403 newly recorded positive tests Tuesday, bringing the total for the state to 461,015. A disproportionately large number of deaths — 120 — were added to the state’s total, now 4,545. Deaths tend to reflect infections that took place several weeks earlier, however.

    The state’s new home-based COVID-19 test uses saliva and employs the same technology as the nasal swab tests given by most healthcare providers and at community testing sites, according to Andrea Palm, the DHS secretary-designee.

    The state is making the at-home test available to any resident who orders it online, using a link on a DHS web page set aside for the program. The page has a direct link to order the test from the provider, Vault Health, free of charge. The test is for anyone who might think they should get a COVID-19 test, regardless of whether they have symptoms, according to DHS.

    The company also sells the tests, but Wisconsin contracted with Vault to provide it free of charge to state residents while billing their health insurance plans or the state if they don’t have health insurance.

    Upon receiving the test kit, the recipient takes the test while conducting a live Zoom call with a Vault employee, then sends it back in a prepaid mailer for analysis, said Palm.

    The new at-home test was available on Tuesday. Starting Wednesday, Dec. 23, a smartphone based app that informs users whether they have been exposed to someone with the coronavirus will go live in Wisconsin. The app is a joint project of Google and Apple, and smartphone users will start receiving notices in their phones to download and activate it on their Bluetooth-enabled phones.

    A person with the app who tests positive for the virus is advised to register that information with the app. Other users of the app who are in close proximity to the positive person for at least 15 minutes will receive a notice that they have been exposed to someone with the virus.

    Palm stressed Tuesday that the app does not share identifying information and does not store location information, either — ensuring complete privacy for its users. But it is most effective “when as many people as possible use it,” Palm said, and DHS is encouraging all smartphone owners to activate it. DHS has an information webpage about the app.

    Coverage of the cost for COVID-19 vaccines, as they become available, had been assumed in the lead up to their rollout, but that was confirmed Tuesday by the Wisconsin Office of the Commissioner of Insurance (OCI). All COVID-19 vaccines are required to be covered at no cost to consumers under the federal CARES Act, passed in March, according to OCI.

    Erik Gunn
    Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.