Wisconsin National Guard Cpls. Emily Rymkus uses a PCR test on Dorothy Schroeder to test for COVID-19 at a drive-up site near Baraboo in April. Unlike the PCR test, which requires inserting a swab deep into the nasal cavity, the antigen tests give results in 15 minutes and only swab the tip of the nares. (Photo © Andy Manis)
Wisconsin National Guard Cpls. Emily Rymkus uses a PCR test on Dorothy Schroeder to test for COVID-19 at a drive-up site near Baraboo in April. Unlike the PCR test, which requires inserting a swab deep into the nasal cavity, the antigen tests give results in 15 minutes and only swab the tip of the nares. (Photo © Andy Manis)

Sites coming online as cases surge, state records another single-day record of 5,922 positive COVID-19 cases. 

As COVID-19 cases skyrocket across Wisconsin and positivity rates continue to climb, the University of Wisconsin System is rolling out rapid antigen testing at its 13 campuses across the state. 

Starting Thursday, a testing site will be in operation on the UW-Eau Claire campus, and on Monday a site will open on the UW-Green Bay campus. 

The sites are coming online as Wisconsin is seeing another near record-breaking day of positive cases Thursday. According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, 5,922 people tested positive and an additional 38 Wisconsinites died due to the virus. 

Antigen tests are helpful in determining whether someone has been exposed to the virus. Unlike a PCR test, an antigen test can be processed within 15 minutes. And unlike the PCR test, which requires inserting a nasal swab deep into the sinus capacity, an antigen test just swabs the inside of the nares. 

The antigen test is not as accurate as a PCR test, which is why students who test positive would be expected to quarantine and then follow up with a PCR test to determine if the antigen test result is accurate.  

On-campus students already are tested twice monthly, and some universities have previously expanded testing to those living off campus. This new initiative, the first to implement widespread antigen testing, will administer 250,000 tests over the next five weeks. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is partnering with the UW System to pay for the additional testing, including testing supplies and additional staff.

It is the first time a federal surge testing operation will use Abbott BinaxNOW rapid point-of-care tests. Federal surge testing provides additional temporary federal support to areas that have seen a recent spike in coronavirus cases.

“Our universities are perfectly positioned to help Wisconsin combat the spread of COVID-19,” said UW System President Tommy Thompson Wednesday in a statement announcing the new testing program. “This is the Wisconsin Idea in action, and a recognition of our existing work to keep our students, faculty, and staff as safe as possible during the pandemic.”

The testing site on the  UW-Eau Claire campus opened Thursday. It, like all the campus-based sites, will have around 12,000 tests available for asymptomatic students, faculty, staff, and their dependents as well as community members. 

UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt told UpNorthNews Wednesday the additional tests will be useful in helping identify the virus among off-campus students, where most COVID-19 cases among the university population in Eau Claire have occurred. Without being tested, students may be asymptomatic and unknowingly be infecting others with the virus.

Eau Claire was one of six Wisconsin cities listed Thursday on the New York Times’ list of the 20 metro areas across the country with the highest two-week positivity rate per capita. Eau Claire was ranked 12th with 110 cases per 100,000 residents.

Another testing location, at UW-Green Bay, is scheduled to open on Monday and will also have 12,000 tests available. Green Bay also made the New York Times’ list at number 19 with 94.5 cases per 100,000 residents.

After opening a rapid-testing site at the Brown County Fairgrounds in De Pere on Monday, the county saw its seven-day average positivity rate shoot up to 37.26%. Of the 695 tests taken on Wednesday, 58.7%, or 408, came back positive. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, the state Department of Health Services reported 1,968 new positive cases in Brown County.

Testing at both sites will be available to anyone age 5 and older at no cost, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. by appointment at DoINeedACovid19Test.com. Individuals do not have to be experiencing symptoms nor have close contact with someone with COVID-19 to get a test, nor do they need to live in the city where testing is being held.

Also on the New York Times’ list is Sheboygan, Wausau-Weston, Fond du Lac and Beaver Dam, ranked 10th, 9th, 8th and 4th, respectively.

Beaver Dam’s daily positivity rate per capita for the past two weeks has been 158.7 per 100,000 people. 

Beaver Dam Mayor Becky Glewen said that report is somewhat erroneous, as the New York Times combines all of Dodge County as part of Beaver Dam’s metropolitan area. Glewen said the number is more reflective of the county as a whole. It also reflects outbreaks at the prisons in Waupun,which is on the border of Dodge and Fond du Lac counties.

Despite that, Glewen said the outbreak has gotten to the point where almost everyone knows someone who has COVID-19 or has come into contact with someone who has tested positive. Beaver Dam Community Hospital, like many small rural hospitals, is nearing capacity. And small businesses, particularly coffee shops and cafes, are closing because their employees have either tested positive for the virus or had to quarantine due to potential exposure. 

While Glewen said she’s seen residents and businesses comply with mask mandates and other measures to deter the spread, in more outlying areas in the county people are still holding large events.