UW-Madison debuts saliva-based tests as part of new Covid-19 response

MADISON, Wis. — The University of Wisconsin-Madison wrapped up its first week of a new Covid-19 response plan that includes the use of saliva-based tests.

The plan is based off of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s SHIELD program, and will require students to be tested twice a week during the spring semester. The school will also introduce a new app, which students will use to show proof of a negative test in order to enter campus buildings.

The switch to the saliva-based tests was made because they are much more inexpensive and efficient, and could allow UW-Madison to administer nearly 10,000 tests a day. The nasal swab is easier, but the saliva test is better for mass testing, according to UW-Madison junior and Covid-19 tester Maggie Grote.

Although, the new tests are also sensitive and leave more room for human error. “You can’t chew gum; you can’t drink water; you can’t eat, smoke, or drink anything at least an hour before the test,” Grote explained. “You can’t spit directly into the test. You have to drool, which a lot of people find confusing.”

The tests’ sensitivity means that they can be more prone to inconclusive results, which would require students to get re-tested. The school’s current rejection rate is around 20-30%, according to Grote. Although, Rebecca Smith, an epidemiologist on UIUC’s SHIELD team, explained that inconclusive tests can be easy to avoid.

“Inconclusive tests became less common as the semester went on,” Smith said. “You’ll learn what you can and cannot do and you’ll find your schedule and the time that works for you.”

The saliva-based test can also screen for the Covid-19 variant that was found in Wisconsin. If you have the variant virus, you will still test positive, according to Smith.