MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Ensuring teachers and school staff have quick access to a COVID-19 test if needed is part of Minnesota’s school reopening plan. But it won’t be the nasal swab or a blood test. Instead, they’ll spit into a tube.

So what is a COVID-19 saliva test and why is Minnesota going that route? Good question.

Major League Baseball players spitting is so ingrained in the sport that WCCO’s Heather Brown even tried to figure out why they have a habit of hawking saliva and seeds.

The crude compulsion is now banned by MLB to help stop the spread of COVID-19. But every other day, players like pitcher Collin McHugh still spit, just in a tube.

It’s how the league is testing for the virus, a process soon shared by Minnesota schools

“This is one particular strategy that we’ve been examining and happy to be able to make this particular saliva test available to educators,” said Jan Malcom, Minnesota Dept. of Health Commissioner.

The method was given FDA approval early this spring. Minnesota has partnered with Vault Health, a men’s healthcare company that rolled up its sleeves in March to create an easy-to-use saliva-based COVID-19 test.

“The accuracy of saliva has been written about now by researchers at Yale University. Rutgers University has now done several hundred thousand of these tests with great data and information that proves that the false-negative rate and false-positive rates of this test are less than 1%,” said Jason Feldman, CEO of Vault Health, adding that the saliva test’s effectiveness is similar to the nasal swab method that is used for the official test result count across the country.

According to MDH, “98% of tests provide either a positive or a negative result, and only 2% of tests provide an inconclusive result. The test can detect fewer than 200 copies of viral genes per milliliter of saliva. It can detect the presence of virus in the saliva within two days of infection and up to 28 or more days after infection. Across all known gene sequences of SARS-CoV-2, the test detects the genes of interest more than 99% of the time, making it highly sensitive and specific for those genes.”

The saliva test however is done at home by the user.

All Minnesota educators and staff will get one at no cost. An MDH spokesperson said the staff member would go to the state’s website and enter their information to confirm they’re employed by a covered school. Once confirmed, an email code for the test will be generated, allowing the staff member to order a test. It should arrive within 24 hours.

“So if there’s ever a chance that they feel that they’ve been exposed or at risk, they will have a test at their hand to be able to take and know for sure that they’re ok,” said Feldman.

Users simply spit about a milliliter of saliva into the tube all while on a Zoom call with a physician who guides them along. The sample is overnight shipped to a lab on the east coast with results expected in about two days.

State health officials said this process eases the testing load on labs in Minnesota, as well as the need for PPE since the user is at home and not at a healthcare facility.

Saliva testing is gaining steam across the country, especially states seeing large spikes of COVID-19 cases like Texas and Arizona. Both states have started drive-up saliva testing sites.

Beyond Minnesota schools, Vault Health has also partnered with Purdue University.

Feldman said the company is also working with professional sports leagues such as the MLB and other industries including manufacturing, transportation, hospitality, retail and government. But Feldman said Gov. Walz is leading the way with his company in terms of public school partnerships.

“Minnesota’s pretty exceptional to make the effort to have 240,000 teachers prepared to have a test was pretty remarkable effort and one that we’re taking very seriously,” he said. “I think other states are taking Gov. Walz’s lead in making sure that their teachers are also covered. I’d say that he’s at the front of the line though.”

Feldman said Vault is working to create 80,000-160,000 saliva tests per day to keep up with the growing demand. The labs the company uses to test samples are currently capable of handling 30,000 samples per day.

MDH said along with the saliva test, school staff will still be allowed to get tested at their own clinic or healthcare provider if necessary.

WCCO contacted several school districts to learn how about how the saliva tests will be distributed and paid for, but many told us they’re still trying to wrap their arms around all aspects of schools reopening.

Jeff Wagner

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