Public Health Officials Say COVID-19 Testing Is Only Way To Stop Community Spread

Vaccine Arrival, Fewer Cases Has Fewer People Getting Tested

A man in a face mask, face shield, gown, and gloves handles a COVID-19 test at an outdoor testing facility under a tent
A COVID-19 test technician handles a test Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, at a pedestrian-friendly testing location at UW-Madison. Angela Major/WPR

The number of coronavirus cases has decreased since Wisconsin hit a peak in November, but public health officials are encouraging people to continue using community COVID-19 testing sites.

In Milwaukee, testing is down from 19,000 people per week in November to a low of 10,000 per week in early December. But, the positivity rate for people who are tested is still relatively high at 10.4 percent, according to data from the Milwaukee Health Department.

Marlaina Jackson, interim health commissioner with the city of Milwaukee, said that’s still considered an “extremely high risk” for community spread. At its peak, Milwaukee’s positivity rate was about 20 percent, Jackson said.

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Milwaukee set up a testing location at Miller Park six weeks ago, which has a daily capacity of 2,000 people. The city has two other community testing sites open on the north and south sides, and each has capacity of 400 people.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said the first week the site at Miller Park opened, there were 16,000 people tested. That peaked to 19,000 the week before Thanksgiving.

“Testing is a very important tool, it gives you the information you need and it helps you make personal choices,” Barrett said at a press conference at the Miller Park testing site Tuesday. “I would feel much better with a decrease in testing if we also saw a decrease in the percentage of people testing positive.”

Barrett said anyone who has symptoms or was in close contact with someone who tested positive should get tested.

Statewide, testing is also down. On Dec. 20, 13,676 people were tested, according to the state Department of Health Services. By comparison, on Nov. 19, 49,043 were tested.

Nick Tomaro, public health emergency response planning coordinator for the Milwaukee Health Department, said the decrease in testing could have to do with people hearing there is a vaccine available and feeling more confident they won’t get the virus.

But he said now is a critical time to be tested to stop community spread.

“The vaccine is incredible, but the rollout will take a long time, based on availability and phasing,” Tomaro said. “The work being doing at the public health level is still critical. We’re projected to go through the summer with testing.”

Meanwhile, Gov. Tony Evers announced Tuesday that at-home COVID-19 saliva collection kits will be available to everyone who lives in Wisconsin, with or without symptoms, at no cost.

“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,” Evers said in a written statement.

The kits are provided by a new contract between DHS and Vault Medical Services. More information can be found on the Wisconsin COVID-19 testing webpage.