State unveils expanded community testing for COVID-19

    Testing
    National Guard members wear full hazmat suits while conducting tests. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

    With COVID-19 cases surging — including 51 deaths in one day from the coronavirus — the state has opened new testing sites in 56 counties and 7 tribal nations around the state.

    The state Department of Health Services (DHS) announced the new testing sites on Thursday as demand has been rising for tests along with reports that some Wisconsin residents have been unable to get tests where they live.

    DHS is urging anyone with COVID-19 symptoms, as well as anyone who has been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, to get a test for the virus. The community sites provide testing at no charge.

    Together the 71 new community test locations, distributed among all regions of the state, can test up to 48,000 people a week for the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the DHS. Members of the Wisconsin National Guard are staffing the testing sites.

    DHS maintains a list of testing sites at https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/covid-19/community-testing.htm.

    The department is asking people seeking a test to register in advance if possible at the DHS CovidConnect web page, but test sites will also accept walk-ins, who can register upon arrival. DHS is asking those who register ahead of time to do so as close as possible to their testing appointment so that healthcare workers can have an accurate record of symptom information.

    As of Thursday afternoon DHS reported 4,870 new confirmed cases of COVID-19, bringing the total number of Wisconsin residents who have tested positive for the coronavirus to 214,996. Thursday’s 51 new deaths has raised the death toll to 1,948.

    “Testing plays a critical role in protecting our friends and family from further spread of the virus and helps us to understand disease activity around the state,” DHS Andrea Palm stated Thursday. “If you are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, or have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive, we encourage you to visit one of these testing sites, isolate away from others, and let your close contacts know they may have been exposed. Your efforts to keep those around you safe will help stop the spread.”

    Testing is necessary, but by itself not enough, to prevent the virus from spreading. DHS is instructing people who get a test to immediately quarantine while they wait for the results. People who test positive should further isolate from everyone else and inform everyone with whom they have been in contact, so those people can get a test as well.

    DHS officials have said access to testing is important in curbing the virus as well as getting a clear picture of its spread in the state. Since June the state’s capacity for tests, both through healthcare providers and at community testing sites, has been steadily expanding. DHS has, since early summer, been stating that anyone in the state should be able to get a test if they need one.

    At times, however, the actual number of tests given has fallen well short of the state’s capacity, which is currently about 42,000 tests a day, according to DHS Secretary-designee Andrea Palm. With just under 30,000 tests per day on average, “we still do have some capacity in the system,” Palm told reporters on Tuesday.

    Along with the expanded community testing that DHS highlighted Thursday, the agency is seeking to increase capacity further as it expects demand to increase with the current increase in cases.

    The state’s testing has been funded by $500 million allocated from the $1.9 billion in funds that Wisconsin was allotted under the CARES Act signed into law  in March. The CARES funding will run out at the end of this year, however, and Palm said Tuesday that the state has been seeking more funding from Congress and President Donald Trump to help cover continued testing into 2021.

    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.