A Behind the Scenes Look at COVID-19 Testing
A sustained, high level of testing is crucial to preventing the spread of COVID-19, as it helps identify who has the virus, and those they’ve had contact with. Nine months ago, you needed to go to a doctor’s office to get tested for COVID-19 in Dane County. We quickly realized that a community test site would be a valuable resource for our community, particularly for those who don’t have health insurance, for our essential workers, and for our communities of color, who are so disproportionately affected by this virus.
On May 11, 2020, in partnership with the state, we opened our COVID test site at Alliant Energy Center, making testing accessible to all by making it free, providing free rides and interpretation, not requiring an appointment or identification, not asking about immigration status, and by providing access on foot, bike, or from a car.
Partnering to meet our community’s needs
The Alliant Energy Center test site is the result of careful planning, a lot of hard work, and incredible partnerships. We’ve had tremendous help with staffing, logistics, and other support from many agencies, without whom the test site would not be successful: Alliant Energy Center, Wisconsin National Guard, Dane County Emergency Management, Dane County Highway Department, Dane County Sheriff, Henry Vilas Zoo, Madison Public Library, Dane County Airport, City of Madison Parking, Madison Metro, Exact Sciences, Maxim, and Contemporary Services Corporation (CSC).
For the first 6 months of operation, responsibility for running the site was shared with our partners in the Wisconsin National Guard. Needed elsewhere in the state, the Guard began to phase out their support at the site in early October. By late November, our staff had taken over full responsibility for running the site.
What it takes to run the site
As mentioned previously, it takes great partnerships to run our site. It also takes a lot of people! The test site is open 5 days a week, and each day requires about 80 people to provide everything from traffic control, intake of people wanting to be tested, logistical help, and to do the testing itself. Most of this work is done outdoors, in the elements, and after 8 months we’ve seen all the weather extremes!
And of course, it also takes money to accomplish all that we do, and to keep it running smoothly. We’ve received a large amount of support from the state, and from the Federal CARES Act, which provides for payments to State, Local, and Tribal governments navigating the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, in addition to Dane County CARES funds.
Efficiency and adaptability are key
After this many months of testing people eight hours a day, we’ve got it down to a science. We keep a close eye on onsite traffic cameras and know that when a certain number of cars are queued up, how long the wait will be for people to get their test. We then update the current wait time on electronic traffic signs provided by Dane County Highway Department throughout the site, and on our Twitter feed.
Throughout any given day we scale up and down the number of testing lanes to meet the demand for testing and to maximize our efficiency. We normally test about 200 to 250 people per hour, but have ramped up to nearly 500 tests per hour on our busiest days.
We’re always looking to improve
We’ve all experienced firsts with this pandemic, and for us, this was our first time running a drive-through community testing site. As we have seen or heard of needs at the test site that would make things more efficient, or would better serve our community, we’ve made them. We realized within the first week of operation that adding some evening hours would increase accessibility to testing, so we added them. We worked with staff from Wisconsin Department of Health Services to develop, test, and then implement their statewide electronic registration system, enabling people to register ahead of time to get tested, which significantly shortened the total length of time one spends at the test site.
Recognizing that COVID is disproportionately affecting some members of our community, we increased accessibility to testing by adding a second testing site at our South Madison office, staffed primarily with bilingual staff, and offered community pop up test sites during the summer months. Most recently, we were able to change the minimum age for testing at our South Madison office from five years to four years, in order to help fill the need for 4K students to be tested.
Eight months of testing and still going strong
To date, in eight months of operation, we’ve conducted 362,566 COVID-19 tests at Alliant Energy Center alone. About 37% of the total tests done among Dane County residents were completed at a public health test site. Nearly 16,000 Dane County residents have had a positive test from the test site. Of those who tested positive, more than 1 out of every 10 were asymptomatic, meaning they were out and about in our community and able to spread the virus without feeling sick at all themselves. This is one of the reasons that we continue to provide easy access to testing by keeping both the Alliant Energy Center site and our South Madison site open. Based on demand and current funding, we will continue to operate both sites through at least March 31, 2021.
While we remain committed to providing free testing at Alliant Energy Center, we have begun to receive COVID-19 vaccine and are providing it out of the same space. As vaccine supply increases and our vaccination efforts expand, this will have an impact on COVID-19 testing at Alliant. When we have vaccines to give, we may dial back on the amount of testing lanes available in order to use some lanes to provide vaccines. This may increase testing wait time. For updates on current testing wait times at Alliant Energy Center on Tuesdays through Fridays, see our Twitter feed.
We’re lucky that there are many options for COVID testing here in Dane County. We’ve been proud to fill the need for a large community test site and as more people are vaccinated in our area, that need will be lessened, striking a new balance between testing for the virus and preventing it through vaccination.