Ahead of the first day of free COVID-19 saliva testing at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, public officials from St. Louis County and the Minnesota House of Representatives tried out the test, which requires a few minutes of spitting into a small tube.

The DECC, city of Duluth, St. Louis County and Vault Health — the company the state of Minnesota is partnering with to offer the saliva testing — hosted an open house Tuesday to preview the setup before testing starts Wednesday.

There are 20 spaced-out tables in the DECC's Paulucci Hall, right inside Entrance F off Harbor Drive. At the tables, test takers start the process by answering a few questions through an online survey before spitting into a tube until their saliva reaches the fill line. For some, it takes longer to produce enough saliva.

"Even though you have to fast for 30 minutes (before taking the test) we highly encourage you to chug a bottle of water right before, then do your 30 minutes," Shawn Baxley, Vault Health's vice president of field operations, said.

Test results can be expected in 48-72 hours after the tube reaches Vault Health's lab in New Jersey, Baxley said.

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To start, the Duluth testing site will employ 10 local people. Vault Health has contracted with a third party, Drug Free Sport, to hire local people to work at the site. Vault Health's lease for the DECC room is through the end of the year, with the option to renew in 2021.

The COVID-19 saliva testing kit at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center testing site comes with a tube people spit into and a smaller tube with a preserving agent that's then mixed with the saliva. (Andee Erickson / aerickson@duluthnews.com)
The COVID-19 saliva testing kit at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center testing site comes with a tube people spit into and a smaller tube with a preserving agent that's then mixed with the saliva. (Andee Erickson / aerickson@duluthnews.com)

The saliva testing site at the DECC is the first of 10 statewide the Minnesota Department of Health is planning. When all those sites are live, the state estimates that they will collectively employ 250 Minnesotans.

After the state had expressed interested in establishing the sites, Roger Reinert, interim executive director for the DECC, said the city of Duluth reached out to him asking if the DECC would be interested.

"We are a public authority. Part of our mission is to serve the public," Reinert said. "The DECC is the 21st century version of the community armory."

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said Duluth was selected as the first saliva testing site in the state for a few different reasons — one being the long-term availability of the DECC and its well-known, centralized location.

"The state is really interested in greater Minnesota (COVID-19) information. We have had a lack of non-symptomatic, easy testing here," Larson said. "Duluth has a lot of activation with students and tourists. As a regional center, people come here to get their needs met. We provide an intersection of humanity that's really a unique opportunity for the state."

In the last couple weeks, St. Louis County has witnessed a noticeable increase in the number of new COVID-19 cases recorded every day. In the last two weeks, 333 more people have tested positive in the county for a daily average of 23.78 new cases. The bulk of those cases were recorded in the Duluth area.

"I'm most excited that now we can actually get tested, whether you have symptoms, whether you've been exposed or you think you may have," Larson said. "It's such a confidence booster to know that you can figure out where you are at in the arc of this pandemic."

St. Louis County Public Health Division Director Amy Westbrook said that the new testing site should take some strain off the local health care systems and hopefully, the time that it takes to get test results.

Any Minnesotan, whether symptomatic or not, can receive saliva testing at the DECC. The only situation in which the more familiar COVID-19 test that uses the nasal swab would be preferable is if someone has symptoms and needs medical treatment.

"What's good about the swab testing, at least right now, is it's connected to a health care system," she said. "That is one good aspect of the swab."

What you need to know before getting tested

The site will be open from noon to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The site is open to walk-ins, but appointments are encouraged; visit mncovidtestingappt.as.me/schedule.php.

Those wanting a test should refrain from eating, drinking or smoking for 30 minutes before the test.

The online survey will ask test-takers for their insurance information so the state can bill the insurance company. The state will cover the cost for those who don't have insurance so the test is free for everyone.