ST. PAUL — With kids back in school, testing mandates at some workplaces and the delta variant pushing cases higher, Minnesota is seeing some of the highest demands for coronavirus testing since the pandemic started.

Store shelves are cleared of rapid tests, and social media is a-twitter with questions about the most convenient ways to see if that sniffle or headache is COVID-19: Is anyone else having problems scheduling a test through their doctor or pharmacy? (Sometimes.) How convenient and pricey are for-profit companies that offer tests? (It varies.)

Yet there’s a free testing program that will deliver a spit test (no irritating nasal swab) to your home anywhere in Minnesota and then emails you results in a comparable time frame to most of these others.

It’s the state’s at-home saliva test program, run through the Minnesota Department of Health, Vault Medical Services and local labs. It’s similar to at-home testing programs done by dozens of other states, including Wisconsin, last year when the nation began to get out from under a testing shortage that had plagued the earliest months of the pandemic.

The Department of Health estimates the program will have cost at least $14 million by the end of 2021, all paid for by federal funds, with a potential for health insurance companies to pay for extra expenses. There are no co-pays or upfront costs, or billed costs of any kind charged to people taking the tests, and you can take as many as you want.

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My family has been doing these tests, generally every week or so, since our son returned to in-person school last year, and we’ve found them the most convenient way to test. And my kid has become a champion at storing up a mouthful of saliva.

All you need is an email address and some sort of computer device with Zoom video capabilities.

Yet the vast majority of Minnesotans appear not to get themselves tested this way.

As of Sept. 20, only a little over 2 percent of Minnesota’s COVID-19 tests reported by labs were through the free at-home testing program.

Here’s how it works:

Quick delivery and pro tips

Once you’ve set up an account at VaultHealth.com, you order a test online by answering a few questions. (Pro tip: If it gets annoyingly tedious to enter all your insurance info, just say you don’t have your card with you to go faster.)

It gets delivered to your home by Door Dash. It can technically take 24 hours, but I’ve found if you order your tests on a weekday morning, you’ll get it that day, sometimes before noon. The test kit is a plastic tube with a little spit funnel and few other items.

Then you pick a time when you won’t eat or drink for a half an hour. (Food chunks and their after-effects make saliva too viscous for the lab testing process.)

Pro tip: Now’s the time to get your saliva flowing. Frying up bacon works best for me, but sniffing vinegar, or any food aroma — or even the thought of something yummy — can work.

Next, go to your Vault account and click “Meet a provider.” This launches a Zoom video chat session with a Vault contractor, who is either a registered nurse, a nurse practitioner, a physician assistant or a medical assistant. You’ll usually have to wait about five minutes for one of these folks to free up. I’ve found waits can vary from zero to one that took 20 minutes. Good idea to have something handy to keep you busy.

Dry mouth panic

When the test supervisor comes on, you answer a few questions — perhaps able to keep the pool of saliva in place while talking. Then they tell you to spit in the tube, usually while they watch.

Yeah, awkward, silly and, for novices, surprisingly high-pressure. My first time, I suddenly got dry mouth.

“The more you do it, the better you get,” said Kandace Graunke, a registered nurse who lives in the west metro and has been on the Vault side of the Zoom calls. Graunke now works as regional clinical manager for Vault, which has about 650 nationwide spit supervisors.

You can get so good at it that you can, as my 11-year-old son likes to say, “one-shot it,” storing up enough saliva in your mouth to fill the tube in one spit. Graunke confirmed what many of us parents have seen: Kids get a kick out of that — and they can get competitive, boasting to their friends about their spitting prowess.

Once you’ve filled the tube with spit, you follow the supervisor’s instructions to package it all up in the included packaging and UPS shipping envelope. You can arrange for a UPS pickup, or, for quickest action, drop it off at a UPS drop box or UPS Store. All UPS Stores have a dedicated bin for the kits, so you won’t have to wait in line. Still, this is the one part of the process that requires you to leave your home.

You’ll get email updates when the lab — Infinity BiologiX in Oakdale — receives your sample, and when the test is completed, telling you whether it was negative or positive.

How long for results?

When it all goes well, you can order your test in the morning and get the results the next day. But it usually takes longer.

Testing demand has roughly doubled in recent months, pushing up the typical turnaround time for the Oakdale lab from four hours to as long as nine hours, according to officials with Vault and Infinity BiologiX. But that doesn’t include the shipping time.

Generally speaking, you should expect to get your results two days after you drop off your sample with UPS. So the entire process, from ordering your test to knowing whether you’ve got COVID, can be three days.

That’s annoyingly long for some folks trying to figure out whether they should isolate after an exposure to someone with the coronavirus.

Downside: Not 'rapid' tests

These Vault spit tests are not the 15-minute rapid tests that work more like pregnancy tests. Those tests are hard to find right now, although schools can get a free supply, and they’ll soon be much more widely available for everyone.

These spit tests are polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests. They’re the gold standard, but they require a laboratory and trained personnel to process.

When to use

The upside is that they’re more accurate — especially for people with no symptoms. The rapid antigen tests work best for people with symptoms in the early stages of infection.

In other words, if you’re wondering about whether you picked up the SARS-CoV-2 virus from someone but you feel fine, or if you’re screening yourself or your child regularly for school, work or some other activity and feel fine, you don’t want the rapid test. You want the spit test, despite the time delay.

If you want the fastest PCR test results, you’re best off taking a test in person somewhere because the sample usually gets to the lab quicker.

Tales from the vault

So what’s it like staring at people spitting into tubes all day long?

Yes, there are tales, Graunke said. There was one time early in the pandemic when she had to talk a couple through the test amid sketchy cell service while they were stranded in a desert national park, uncertain when they’d be able to leave, especially if they had COVID.

The funniest stories are often with kids. “The young children are the most endearing and memorable,” she said. “The kids love it when they’re able to add enough saliva for one shot. They love competing with their parents.”

There’s a risk to that. My son last week actually had a saliva “accident” while waiting for the spit supervisor to come on Zoom. Yes, a puddle of foamy saliva on the floor.

“I loved it,” said Graunke, who acknowledged that Zoom fatigue can be a downside. “But I’m very much a people person. You engage with patients all the time. If you approach it with an attitude of ‘Oh my God, I have to watch people spit all day,’ then it’s probably not a job you would enjoy.

“Knowing you’re part of a solution to a pandemic and probably part of history, I don’t think it’s a bad job.”

How to get free COVID home tests

Free, at-home coronavirus tests are available to all Minnesotans through a state program.