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The U.S. Needs More Covid Testing, and Minnesota Has Found a Way

Get everybody in an entire state to spit into a tube? You betcha.

Saliva samples from across Minnesota are processed at the Infinity BiologiX facility in Oakdale.

Saliva samples from across Minnesota are processed at the Infinity BiologiX facility in Oakdale.

Photographer: Ackerman + Gruber for Bloomberg Businessweek

The deliveries arrive at the lab four times a day, most in UPS trucks, some by courier, the last usually just before midnight. Each brown bag contains a sealed vial filled with saliva turned bright blue from a fluid that deactivates the coronavirus, if there is any, but preserves the nucleic acid so it can be detected. The lab is on the fourth floor of a building in what will eventually be a biotech hub. It has light sculptures in the lobby, is surrounded by farmland and construction, and is just 10 miles from downtown St. Paul, which is convenient but not nearly as important as its proximity to a United Parcel Service Inc. depot. When the lab opened in Oakdale in late October, the staff used to pile the bags onto standard rolling carts. By early November those were no longer sufficient. They began using bins, but those required them to lean in deep, again and again. By Thanksgiving they’d switched to Gaylord boxes, with sides that easily pull down, which allowed them to more quickly unload the 900 or so samples each one holds.

That was a small adjustment among many as the velocity of the virus’s spread increased. Positivity rates, hospitalization rates, intensive care capacity, R-naught, lives lost: There are so many ways to describe the contours of the Covid‑19 pandemic and measure its devastation. Every one of them was moving in the wrong direction by late autumn, first in the states around Minnesota—the Dakotas, Iowa, Wisconsin—then in Minnesota itself. That’s when the state government began an ambitious effort to encourage every resident to be tested—easily, quickly, and for free.