Vault test kit

Vault Medical Services' saliva-based COVID-19 testing kit is being offered by the state for free.  

Wisconsinites can now order a home COVID-19 testing kit with the click of a button, have it delivered for free to their homes and sent off via UPS.

The announcement comes on a day the state reported record number of deaths and as a dwindling number of people seek testing.

“We believe that anyone in Wisconsin who needs to be tested for COVID-19 should have access to a test, and I’m proud of our statewide testing efforts throughout this pandemic,” said Gov. Tony Evers. “We also know that getting to a health care provider or a community testing site isn’t easy for everyone, and that’s why we are excited to offer this new option to make testing even more accessible for folks across our state.”

It also comes as vaccinations against COVID-19 enters a second week with lower numbers of doses than originally expected. Pfizer, which began shipping vaccine last week, is expected to provide 35,100 doses next week, down from 49,727 last week. And Moderna, which rolled its vaccine this week with 101,000 doses coming to Wisconsin, is expected to ship fewer doses next week. A program to vaccinate some 57,000 residents and staff at the state’s nursing homes with the Moderna vaccine is still expected to begin next week.

The free at-home testing program is a partnership between the state and Vault Medical Services, which has distributed a saliva-based at-home test kit since April. The company said the kits work in the same manner as nasal swab collections commonly done at testing sites and provide conclusive results in 99% of tests.

Health officials hope the at-home option will increase testing in the state, which has fallen off sharply in recent weeks. The Department of Health Services reported 14,109 tests on Tuesday, down from a high of 49,037 on Nov. 19. On Tuesday, 2,660 new COVID-19 cases were reported, down from a mid-November high of 7,989. However, there were a record 120 deaths reported Tuesday, a day after a tally of only eight. Officials have said that reporting issues sometimes create a lag in the data, which could contribute to spikes. The seven-day daily average for deaths is 60.

People can order the kit online on the state Department of Human Services website and have it shipped to their home. To collect a saliva sample, users have to make a Zoom call with a Vault testing supervisor, package the sample and drop it off at a UPS site the day it is collected. Results will be delivered by email in a time frame comparable to that of community testing sites, officials said.

Vault, a men’s telehealth company, is one of several companies that have offered home test kits. On its website, Vault charges $119 for each kit. It was unclear how much the state is paying.

“It’s dependent on how many people order the test,” said DHS Secretary-designee Andrea Palm during a press briefing. “Vault has the capability to bill health insurance. And if you don’t have health insurance then that bill will come to the state and we will pay for that so that this testing remains at no cost for individuals here in the state of Wisconsin.”

The company has recently contracted with several states and local governments to provide the kits.

Evers said that in tandem with the smartphone app WI Exposure Notification, available at Google Play starting Wednesday, and the start of vaccinations, the home testing option is part of an effort in recent days to box in COVID-19.

“These are great new tools Wisconsinites can use to fight this virus,” he said.

The WI Exposure Notification uses Bluetooth technology that will anonymously send notifications to anyone who recently had 15 minutes of contact within 6 feet of someone who tests positive for the virus, as long as the infected person enters that result into the app.

Dr. Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer for DHS, said Tuesday the state is monitoring for a new and possibly more transmissible strain of COVID-19 that has become prevalent in the United Kingdom.

“So far we have not seen any of the patterns that are identical to the strain that we’re discussing in the UK, but we’re continuing to look for it,” he said. “That being said, it doesn’t mean that it’s not here.”

He said there’s no evidence that the new strain is resistant to COVID-19 vaccines, though some evidence suggests that the variant is more readily transmitted than previous strains. Westergaard said that has yet to be proven, but added, “it seems to be associated with a cluster that is spreading faster.”

“Mutations among viruses are very, very common,” he said. “It’s not unusual, in fact it’s expected that as time goes on in an epidemic the genetic sequence of the virus will change.”

Also on Tuesday, Evers said the money the state expects from the $900 billion COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress on Monday is “not even close” to what it needs to continue testing, contact tracing and vaccinations in 2021. But it will provide a stop-gap as federal money from last spring’s CARES Act dries up after the end of the month.

“The plan is to convince Congress to come back in session with a new president and really finish the job in a good way,” he said. “Every one of the legislators who supported it said this is just a beginning.”

Evers, who on Monday offered a scaled-down version of his COVID-relief package for the state, also said he’s still talking with the Republican-led Legislature to find common ground.

“There’s a whole number of issues,” he said. “I would say that the one that concerns me the most is the inability to convince Republicans to do away with the one-week waiting period for unemployment insurance. People wait too long the way it is.

The waiting period was waived in last spring’s relief bill, but under that law goes back into effect on Feb. 7.