Duluth Mayor Emily Larson touted the benefits of having an easily accessible and free COVID-19 testing site at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, which has now fielded roughly 8,000 saliva tests in its first three weeks.

“We’re seeing really tremendous use here,” Larson said in a media call with the Minnesota Department of Health and Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday. “We know of many families and households who are now essentially taking turns with their family members. One person will go each week ... and that is one really easy way to just gauge where your family is in the course of the pandemic.”

Larson referenced an example in an asymptomatic person tested at the DECC. A couple of days later, they received a positive test result.

“Here's a case where this person was able to go home with their partner, quarantine and not spread that any further than they already had,” she said.

For her own family, the accessible testing will hopefully mean her husband can visit his father, who lives in a senior living community, for the first time since December.

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To visit him, Larson said, her husband needs to receive two negative test results.

“It’s that kind of access that is game changing for people to have social connections, for people to move through with confidence,” she said.

The health care sector makes up about 25% of Duluth's economy, Larson said, compared to 12% in many cities. That said, she noted it's especially important residents aren't unknowingly spreading the virus and the testing site can help people prevent that from happening.

Workers at Duluth's saliva testing site are mainly employees of the DECC who were furloughed or laid off, Minnesota Department of Health Assistant Commissioner Dan Huff said.

With a surge in COVID-19 cases across the Upper Midwest, Gov. Tim Walz said that quick, easy and close-to-home testing is crucial.

“The longer it takes for us to find out if somebody has this, the more they unknowingly spread it," Walz said. "Waiting several days to get the results really impedes our ability to slow this down."

The addition of three more saliva testing sites around the state, along with a yet-to-be launched mail-in saliva testing program, will offer more testing options around Minnesota to help reduce unknown transmission.

Mail-in testing

The Health Department plans to launch a mail-in saliva testing pilot program in the coming weeks in several selected counties that will allow Minnesotans to register to have an at-home testing kit sent to their house, Huff said.

Employees of the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State College and Universities systems will also pilot the program, Huff said.

During the week of Oct. 19, all students and employees at U of M campuses, including the University of Minnesota Duluth, will receive a code for one free, optional, mail-in saliva test, according to the U of M.

A new laboratory for processing COVID-19 saliva tests will open in Oakdale, Minnesota, next week, meaning saliva tests, including those administered at the DECC, will no longer need to be sent to a lab in New Jersey.

Up to 250 people will be employed at the lab, which will be able to process an additional 30,000 tests a day for the state.