On a normal day, the Nielsen Tennis Stadium is just one of many recreation centers around the UW-Madison campus. But like many sites across the country, it has been transformed into a COVID-19 testing facility.
It’s part of a broader, statewide effort between the University of Wisconsin system and the federal government to provide more testing to the state of Wisconsin. Because of the state’s outbreak, the United States Department of Health and Human Services has provided 13 Wisconsin state universities around 250,000 rapid test kits, 80,000 of which were given to UW-Madison through the end of the 2020.
The kits use Abbott BinaxNOW antigen tests, which were developed by the Illinois-based medical device company Abbott Laboratories. The company says the tests are about 97% effective at detecting positive COVID-19 cases.
The Nielsen site has been free and open to the public, for anyone age 5 and older, for several weeks. A separate facility for UW students and employees is located at the Kohl Center.
Testing is by appointment only, and those are made online. Margaret Tennessen, Deputy Associate Vice Chancellor at UW Madison’s Division of Facilities Planning & Management, is a the spokesperson for the project. She says the process takes just about 20 minutes.
“At your appointed time, you come over to the site here,” Tennessen explained at the Nielsen center this morning. “You’ll come in, stop at registration, self-administer a covid test, and then you wait for about 15 minutes and you’ll get the results back.”
Results are available at the center or by email as soon as they’re completed.
Rapid antigen tests like the Abbott BinaxNOW have a slightly higher rate of false negatives or positives. PCR tests – like those used at the Alliant Energy Center – are the most accurate COVID-19 test, but take three days to confirm.
But because of the antigen test’s rapid results, Tennessen says they’re an effective tool in lowering the spread of COVID-19.
“The advantage of what we are doing here with the rapid testing is, for anyone who tests positive, they can immediately take steps to isolate themselves from others so that we’re stopping the spread of COVID very quickly,” she said.
The Nielsen center has already administered more than 7,500 tests. While they were at capacity before Thanksgiving, slots have freed up at the moment, and the center is now capable of over 1,000 appointments every day.
The increase in testing for the public comes as health officials warn the pandemic will likely worsen in Dane county. In November, Dane county added 40 COVID-19 deaths to the county total which as of this article reaches 101.
Janel Heinrich, director of Public Health Madison & Dane County, said today that Dane county has seen a calm in cases. As of November 28 she said, the 7 day average of cases was 275, down from 500 in mid November.
“While we still have not seen the effects of Thanksgiving on our case counts, and while we hope that cases will continue to decline, we are bracing ourselves for the likely reality of another surge from the holiday weekend,” said Heinrich.
Speaking to reporters today, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said while Dane County’s health orders are the strongest in the state, residents should keep following safety guidelines.
“Over the past seven days, we are averaging 6.7% positivity rate in Dane county, and 13% statewide,” Rhodes-Conway said. “Just for comparison, New York City has a 3% positivity rate. We can, and we must, do better.”
Dane County’s health orders are currently the subject of a lawsuit from the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative legal group.
As health officials brace for continued hospitalizations, Tennessen says testing centers like the Nielsen are seen as crucial allies to the state of Wisconsin. She says anyone in and outside of the Madison community will have access to immediate results.
“It’s free, it’s fast, and we’re hearing from people that they find it’s very easy to come here,” she said.
The program will run through the end of December, though an end date has not been determined.
Anyone who wants to sign up for an appointment at a UW system testing facility can do so at doineedacovid19test.com. The Nielsen Tennis Center facility is open Sundays from 10 am to 5:30pm, and Monday through Thursday 8 am to 7pm