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Wisconsin National Guard streamlines COVID-19 testing in Madison

Image By: Courtesy of Wisconsin National Guard

Miguel Perez is a 20-year-old Wisconsin resident and student at the University of Minnesota pursuing a liberal arts degree. In his free time, Perez enjoys drawing, hiking and visiting his hometown. 

In May 2020, much of that changed. Perez, a member of the Wisconsin National Guard, was suddenly relocated to Madison to aid Governor Evers’ response to the coronavirus pandemic. The Guard, tasked with assisting medical professionals, began calling and delivering testing results to citizens who have been tested for COVID-19. Perez became a part of that mission. 

“I think being bilingual, and having actual language capabilities is really helpful, otherwise I’d be out in the sun in a hazmat suit, sticking q-tips in peoples’ noses,” Perez said. “So now I get to be here in Madison making calls to people all over Wisconsin.”

The Wisconsin National Guard and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services have been driven to utilize and improve community-based testing sites in the effort to meet Evers’ goals of testing a third of Wisconsin residents — almost three million people. Madison, home of the Alliant Energy Center testing site, became a key location for streamlining the state’s COVID-19 testing process. 

Perez was specifically assigned to contact people who were tested for COVID-19, verify their medical information and give them their results.

Most results are negative. Still, Perez has delivered the news to many who tested positive. 

“I think in my personal experience, while still trying to be as professional as possible...It’s still kind of devastating...It’s fine. It’s not fun. It’s just really crappy news,” Perez stated. 

In addition to addressing language barriers, Perez has often dealt with citizens who believed the calls were scams. 

“There’s been times where I was told, ‘Go to hell,’” Perez recalled. “I did have one guy who was very upset that I called him on a Sunday morning. He asked me, ‘Do you know what day it is?’ Absolutely, I do. I woke up to do this. I’d like it to not be this day, but it is. Anyways, he didn’t want his testing information.”

While Perez’s original orders were to travel around the state collecting samples, he’s found a place in Madison contacting and delivering information to citizens in their primary language. He found that many Hispanic workers in blue-collar jobs are often required by their workplace to be tested for COVID-19, which is easier when testing sites and call centers are staffed with Spanish speakers. 

Perez notes that while a majority of the translators speak Spanish, the center is also staffed with a German speaker, a Mandarin speaker and Hmong speakers.

“I handle a majority of Spanish calls,” Perez said. “I see, especially with older adults that are my parents’ age, I understand their thought process about, perhaps, an uncertainty about what this means for them. I can’t help not hearing my mom when they answer the phone, so I make sure they are following proper precautions and being as safe as they can.” 

In addition to stationing guardsmen who speak multiple languages, the Wisconsin National Guard has rolled out an online registration platform for citizens to access prior to being tested, allowing for the collection of patient data. The program, titled the Dynamics Testing and Registration Application, also known as COVID Connect, was piloted at the Alliant Energy Center testing site. 

“The biggest effects are a faster testing process, allowing for a higher throughput at the point of collection, data accuracy, and faster result notifications for the individuals being tested,” Maj. Russel Simonis, the officer in charge of the Wisconsin National Guard’s specimen collection team, said. 

Still, while the Alliant Energy Center has been an increasingly successful community testing site, testing thousands of people every day, it may close down this fall without a continuation in federal funding.

“The scary thing is, a lot of people have stopped hearing about positive COVID cases, and assume that the cases per day have gone down, but they’ve just plateaued,” Perez stated. “It makes me anxious to see things open up again. I’m nervous for the future.”

Perez echoed guidelines from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services and Public Health Madison & Dane County, stating that citizens should continue to wear masks, socially distance and most importantly, continue to get tested. 

“In some sort of weird cynical way, I think about job security, which I would rather not have. I’d rather I had no job and have people be healthy and safe than having to call them and tell them the good or bad news. I’m just trying to do my part.” Perez reflects. 

The Alliant Energy Center testing site is expected to remain open until at least Aug. 31.

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