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Minnesota to provide at-home COVID tests amid record deaths

MADISON, Wis.  — Gov. Tony Evers announced Tuesday that his administration has partnered with a medical testing company to provide at-home COVID-19 tests for free if a requestor lacks health insurance coverage as the state set a new record high in deaths tied to the disease.

State Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm said during a teleconference and reporters that health officials are concerned that fewer people are getting tested, leading to a false picture of the disease’s prevalence. The DHS reported 6,852 people had been tested between Monday and Tuesday. About 20,000 people were getting tested daily in mid-November.

The governor said his administration has struck a deal with Vault Medical Services to provide free at-home COVID-19 saliva tests. Anyone can order a test through the state Department of Health Services website  starting immediately.

After a testing kit arrives, users must collect a sample as a Vault testing supervisor looks on via a Zoom connection. Users will then mail the sample back to a Vault lab using a prepaid label that comes with the kit. Results will take between two and three days.

Evers’ administration did not include the cost of the program in the announcement. Vault’s website indicates people can order a test for themselves for $119 per kit.

DHS Secretary Andrea Palm said during a teleconference with reporters that a requester’s health insurance provider will be billed.

If the provider won’t cover the test or a requester lacks health insurance the state will pay for it, she said.

Minnesota officials have reached a similar deal with Vault on at-home tests.

The DHS reported 2,403 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, bringing the state’s total to 461,015 since the pandemic began. The disease was a factor in another 120 deaths, a new daily record. The old daily record was 107 deaths, set on Dec. 1. The disease has now played a role in 4,545 deaths.

In other COVID-19 developments Tuesday:

—Aspirus Health Care announced one of its hospitals in Wausau has received its first doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine. The first shots were expected to be administered Tuesday afternoon. Health care systems began vaccinating front-line workers with Pfizer’s vaccine over the weekend.

—The state Department of Workforce Development said it has now processed nearly 97% of the 8.87 million weekly unemployment benefit claims it has received between March 15 and Saturday. The department has paid out $4.6 billion to about 585,440 claimants since March 15. Republicans have spent most of the year criticizing Evers over chronic delays in processing unemployment claims.

—The governor sidestepped a question during the teleconference about whether the state should establish positivity and testing benchmarks for schools looking to return to in-person instruction. Evers said schools have been making their own decisions in consultation with local health officials and he’s not sure a state “intervention” would change things. He added, though, that the disease doesn’t appear to be spreading through in-person classes.

—Evers urged people not to celebrate Christmas and other end-of-the-year holidays with anyone outside their own household to prevent infections.