Minnesota COVID-19 briefing: Health officials discuss expanded saliva testing, mental health heading into winter months

Ben Rodgers & Callan Gray
Updated: October 23, 2020 06:55 PM
Created: October 23, 2020 03:17 PM

During the Minnesota Department of Health's regular COVID-19 briefing Friday, state health officials discussed the expansion of saliva testing through at-home testing kits, as well as the issue of mental health as Minnesotans head into the winter months. 

MDH Commissioner Jan Malcolm spoke about the pilot program launched Wednesday that allows for COVID-19 saliva tests to be sent to the homes of Minnesotans in 23 counties, as well as the Red Lake Nation. 

Malcolm said the program is an important development in the state's testing strategy. 

"The testing strategy is really about having a range of options for people seeking out testing so that tests can be done quickly and results returned quickly," the commissioner said. 

Malcolm said the hope is to roll the program out to Minnesotans statewide, which she said could happen in November. 

“We’re just so happy to have this program, It’s just going to be a boon to our population,” said Sarah Grosshuesch, director of Wright County Public Health. “We were incredible stressed, actually, the day before we found out we were going to be part of this because I don't have the staff to even go out and do the testing if I wanted to.”

These tests are shipped directly to the residents' home, alleviating some burden on local health officials.

Grosshuesch told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS they’ve been advocating for more access. 

She said testing options county-wide have been limited due to stretched county resources and fewer testing sites- both through the state and private healthcare systems.

“We started to experience that by calls from community members who were having trouble access testing in a timely fashion, having to leave the county and travel rather far,” Grosshuesch said. “Even when you would look geographically, the state provides a website you can see where the testing locations are, and they’re very far.”

There are only four sites located in Wright County on the MDH website. Grosshuesch said it’s created gaps, particularly in rural areas.

“We don't have infinite capability so to have this be accessible to people at their house is really just the way to break down barriers,” she said.

The saliva tests are PCR diagnostic tests, which are just as accurate as the nasal swab, according to MDH. The Health Department is partnering with Vault Health to provide the tests.

Anyone who lives in the counties participating in the pilot program, who believes they’ve been exposed to COVID-19, can fill out a form online to request a test. It is shipped directly to the patient’s house. 

When they are ready to take the test, they log onto a website and launch a video conference with a healthcare provider.

“You will be able to have someone guide you through and provide that reassurance you're doing it right,” said Dr. Bonnie Brueshoff, director of the Dakota County Public Health Dept. “I think not everybody has been real comfortable with the specimen testing where they’re swabbing up your nose. The saliva testing, that's done in the comfort of your home and on your own time.”

Dakota County has also faced testing access hurdles.

“At this point in time we don't have a semi-permanent site,” she said. “As they’re opening up around the state in other areas, the closest that we would have would be the one that opened up in Brooklyn Park.”

Dakota and Wright Counties are the two largest counties participating in the pilot program. They also have the highest number of cases among those participating. 

Both public health directors have seen an increase in cases over the last several weels.

“Having more of these options is so important,” said Brueshoff. “At this point, I think most everybody has heard plenty that what we can do right now is test and then we need to trace and then we need to isolate.”

She said it will also help identify where to invest resources.

“We can really find out are there pockets, areas we need to be concerned about? Are there settings where there's been exposures,” said Brueshoff.

Residents who complete a test are provided a pre-paid package to ship the sample to the new Oakdale Lab. Results will be e-mailed to the patient within 24 to 48 hours, according to MDH.

“The only way we're really going to understand what's happening in our community is through testing,” said Grosshuesch.  “It’s critically important and it’s not just for community members. Work sites, schools and long term care all make decisions based on what's happening with their population.”

She added, “We are testing so people are informed and they have the information to protect themselves to respond, if they’re feeling sick we want them to be able to take care of themselves.”

Follow KSTP's complete COVID-19 coverage

During the briefing, Dr. Tai Mendenhall, with the University of Minnesota, spoke about the concerns of mental health and the pandemic as the winter season is approaching. 

Mendenhall said many struggle with mental health issues during the winter months, however, the COVID-19 pandemic may complicate that even more.

"Just about any single symptom that is pretty normal for winter, like a scratchy throat, is going to be connected to these worries like 'Do I have COVID, how many people have I infected, am I going to die,'" Mendenhall said. "Those types of fears are new. We didn't use to think that last winter when we got a tickle in our throats." 

He also spoke about the ability to be outside less and the stress with changes to upcoming holidays as a concern. 

With this in mind, Mendenhall said it is important to recognize mental health and resist the stigmas of mental health, seek different forms of help when it is needed and remember there is no "one size fits all" solution to mental health. 

Malcolm added the Minnesota Department of Health has a number of resources, which can be found here. 

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