By LeAnn R. Ralph
MADISON — The state of Wisconsin has launched a new website for COVID-19 testing registration, called COVID Connect, that is expected to shorten waiting times at testing sites.
Stephanie Smiley, the state Department of Health Services Division of Public Health interim administrator, and Major General Paul Knapp, Wisconsin’s Adjutant General, spoke about the new website and answered questions from reporters July 9 during an online televised news conference.
Testing is the most effective tool for stopping COVID-19, Smiley said.
The new COVID Connect website was recently launched at the Alliant Energy Center testing site in Madison operated by the Wisconsin National Guard, Smiley said.
COVID Connect is expected to be launched at other National Guard testing sites within the next week or two, she said.
When people come to a testing site, members of the National Guard will ask people to use their smartphones to register on the COVID Connect website.
The questions focus on employment, your health status to check for other medical conditions, current symptoms, whether you have had contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, whether you have traveled anywhere within the last two weeks and your contact information, Smiley said.
Registering with the COVID Connect website will also help speed up getting the results of the test, she said.
Testing and contact tracing are effective tools. Calls from contact tracers are confidential, and a contact tracer will never ask for your social security number or for credit card information, Smiley said.
Contact tracers will ask some of the same questions that are included on the COVID Connect website, so the website will help improve the efficiency of contact tracing, she said.
If people are experiencing the symptoms of COVID-19, they should get tested. Symptoms include cough, shortness of breath, fever, chills, sore throat, runny nose, muscle pain, headache and new loss of taste or smell. Some people also experience extreme fatigue or gastrointestinal symptoms (nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or abdominal pain), Smiley said.
If people have been exposed to COVID-19, they should get a test, although there are still some limitations on testing supplies. People who are asymptomatic but have known exposure to COVID-19 are encouraged to be tested, she said.
Currently 1,000 citizen soldiers and airmen are assisting with the COVID-19 response in Wisconsin, said Major General Knapp, noting the peak number was 1,400 in May.
National Guard personnel are running testing sites around the state, and to date, they have called 182,000 residents with their test results, he said.
All together, 20 teams are operating around the state, and 200,000 tests were completed this past week, Major General Knapp said.
There is a strong demand for testing in Madison and Milwaukee, and the National Guard testing sites have gone from 200 tests per day to 3,000 per day, he said.
Members of the National Guard who are working the testing sites “have gone above and beyond the call of duty,” Major General Knapp said.
A reporter from the Wisconsin State Journal asked how the privacy of people registering on the COVID Connect website is protected and how the website will affect wait times.
COVID Connect is a secure website, and the information collected goes directly into the Wisconsin Disease Surveillance System, Smiley said.
The wait times at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison are now well under an hour. The wait time previously was four hours, but the National Guard has added more testing lanes, so the additional lanes and the new website have decreased the wait times, Major General Knapp said..
The Alliant Energy Center in Madison has six drive-through lanes and one walk up lane, he said.
A reporter from NBC15 in Madison asked for DHS’s response to the mask mandate in Madison.
Any barrier — a cloth face covering or a visor — will keep the secretions from someone infected with COVID-19 from getting out into the air, Smiley said.
Masks are one of the only tools available to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, and DHS wants people “to do the right thing,” she said.
A reporter from WAOW TV out of Wausau said Marathon County is requiring all employees to wear masks and wondered if enough was being done about masks and whether there would be more requirements for people to wear masks.
“We want people to do the responsible thing,” Smiley said.
When not enough people are being responsible, they need to be “nudged.” When it is needed, DHS would support a nudge for people to protect themselves and others from COVID-19, she said.
A reporter from the Appleton Post Crescent asked if the National Guard would be willing to help with state’s backlog in processing unemployment claims that have resulted from the pandemic.
The National Guard has not been asked to help process unemployment claims but would be willing to help if asked, Major General Knapp said.
A reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio noted the push on the federal level to open schools this fall and asked if contact tracing has shown increased risk for contracting COVID-19 at summer camps and daycare facilities.
Since the schools in Wisconsin have been closed since March, there is no information available yet about schools, Smiley noted.
While outdoor activities pose less risk for COVID-19 infections, people can still be exposed and infected during outdoor activities, she said.
Even for outdoor activities, people are encouraged to wear masks and to practice social distancing. And if people are sick — stay home, Smiley said.
As for summer camps and daycare, there is no specific information that summer camps and daycare present any increased risk for COVID-19, but what contact tracing has shown is that anyplace where people gather together and do not take precautions, there is an increased risk of contracting the disease, she said.
“It is less about the setting and more about what people are doing,” Smiley said.
A reporter from the Associated Press asked how the COVID Connect website would decrease the wait times at National Guard testing sites.
The COVID Connect website speeds up the interview process, Major General Knapp said.
If people are waiting in their cars and sign up on the website, the website will produce a code that members of the National Guard can use to transfer information to their screens so they do not have to enter that information again, he said.
Another reporter asked if the COVID Connect website would be able to meet an increased demand for testing.
Smiley said she believed the website would be able to handle thousands more registrations for testing if there is an increased demand.