The University of Minnesota is planning to ramp up its COVID-19 testing capacity by ordering more than 70,000 saliva tests to distribute to students attending its five campuses this fall.

The systemwide mail-order saliva testing program will soon be available to faculty, staff, graduate assistants and professionals in training through a partnership with the state, U President Joan Gabel announced Monday. U leaders will seek approval from the Board of Regents on Friday to also offer the testing to all students.

"The benefit of this voluntary test is that it can be used at any time, and can be taken from home — you don't have to go to a clinic or other health care provider to take this test," Gabel said in a message to students.

The university will not have to pay for employee saliva tests because Gov. Tim Walz directed federal CARES Act money to cover the testing costs of those working at public higher education institutions. Gabel will ask regents to approve an $8.5 million deal with vendor Vault Health to buy up to 66,000 saliva tests for students and up to 10,000 additional testing kits for use in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak or cluster on campus.

Systemwide saliva testing will be launched in the coming weeks and be available through Dec. 31. University employees — and students, pending regents' approval — will each have access to one free test, which they can have mailed directly to their homes.

Test kits will arrive within 48 hours of an order, according to Vault Health.

Through a virtual appointment, a health care provider will guide the patient through the test, after which they will pack the tube back into its box and mail it to the provider. Results will be shared via e-mail within 72 hours after lab arrival, a U spokesman said.

State health officials would follow up confidentially with those who test positive.

With saliva testing, the U has another tool to help monitor COVID-19 transmission on its campuses and increase the likelihood they remain open through the semester. The university is also testing residence hall sewage for COVID-19 in hopes of catching cases early and preventing outbreaks among students. And its campus clinics are testing those who are symptomatic or have been exposed to someone infected.

Between Aug. 1 and Sept. 26, 431 students enrolled at the U's Twin Cities campus had tested positive for COVID-19, according to the university's online dashboard. That includes 120 positive student cases reported the week of Sept. 20-26.

Regent Steve Sviggum, vice chairman of the board, said the new testing program might give the university community a greater sense of "comfort and safety."

"We're just glad things have moved along as smoothly as they have the first couple weeks here," Sviggum said.

Twitter: @ryanfaircloth