A COVID-19 saliva testing kit

A COVID-19 saliva testing kit sits open at the testing site at the DECC in Duluth. The test site is expected to operate through the end of the year.

Health officials from the state and region previewed Minnesota’s first pilot site for free COVID-19 saliva testing at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center on Tuesday.

The Minnesota Department of Health announced Duluth as the first location on Monday and has plans for up to nine more saliva testing sites across the state as health officials determine demand. Saliva testing is considered less invasive than the nasal swab test and the DECC site will begin testing Wednesday.

“This next milestone allows us to expand and diversify our testing options available to Minnesotans,” said MDH Commissioner Jan Malcolm, in a statement. “Increased access to testing and identifying positive cases as early as possible is a critical way to keep schools and the economy as open as possible. While testing alone will not suppress the virus, higher testing volumes are a central part of our strategy to manage the virus.”

The Duluth site will be open Wednesday through Friday from noon to 7 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 pm. It is open to walk-ins, but people are encouraged to make an appointment in advance to avoid crowding and long lines.

The tests will be free to all Minnesotans, whether or not they are displaying symptoms of COVID-19. Workers will ask about insurance, but the state will cover the difference if insurance does not cover the test or if someone is uninsured.

Results will be provided by email within 24-48 hours of arrival at the lab for processing. It will be operated by Vault Health, which developed the first saliva-based coronavirus test.

“Our saliva test is one of the most reliable COVID tests available with a 99 percent effective rate,” co-Founder and CEO of Vault Health Jason Feldman said in a press release. “It’s comfortable to take and can be done without in-person interactions, meaning no risk of virus transmission and no need for PPE to conduct the test. Minnesota is truly leading the way in unlocking testing for everyone.”

County cases on the rise

St. Louis County reported 19 new coronavirus cases and two additional deaths on Tuesday, bringing totals to 1,421 cases (293 active) and 36 deaths. The two newly-reported deaths were people aged 95-99 and resided in long-term care facilities.

Last week, the county reported its largest single-day increase of 50 cases and added another 43 on Monday.

Increased hospitalizations in the county — now up to a record high of 14 — indicate more serious cases as long-term care residents continue to be counted among the active cases. Four facilities on the Iron Range have had at least 10 cases in the last 28 days, according to MDH data and include Carefree Living in Ely, The Waterview Woods in Virginia, The Waterview Pines in Eveleth and Heritage Manor in Chisholm.

At least two Iron Range schools — Hibbing and Ely — have adjusted their education models to hybrid learning for grades 7-12 since school started Sept. 8, based on the 13.74 infection rate per 10,000 residents in greater St. Louis County. Rock Ridge Public Schools told parents last week that it anticipates moving to a hybrid model on Sept. 28.

“If next week’s case rates are between 10-20 per 10,000, and unless there are circumstances which warrants otherwise — keep in mind that local events can play a major role in any decision — the high school will move to hybrid learning while the elementary schools will continue with in-person schooling,” wrote Superintendent Dr. Noel Schmidt, noting students in grades 7-12 will have next Monday and Tuesday off school to allow teachers to prepare.

New data for schools are released by the county on Thursday.

Minnesota health officials reported 513 new COVID-19 cases (91,422 in total) on Tuesday on a reduced number of tests (8,386) from the previous day’s 16,916, meaning the lower daily case total could be a moot point in the overall picture of the virus’ spread in the state.

Ten new fatalities raise Minnesota’s death toll from the coronavirus to 1,979. The U.S. death toll has surpassed 200,000, according to The Associated Press, the highest total in the world as counted by Johns Hopkins University.

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