Confirmed Utah coronavirus cases jump along with testing capacity

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Health workers and security wait at a drive-up COVID—19 evaluation and testing at the University health Sugarhouse location, Friday, March 20, 2020.

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Confirmed cases of coronavirus surpassed 100 on Friday, and the state saw the biggest single-day jump since the beginning of the epidemic.

The number of confirmed cases in Utah rose from 78 to 112, state officials reported Friday.

“The rate of increase has been consistent this week,” state epidemiologist Angela Dunn said in a briefing. “It’s been about a 50% increase this entire week from day to day.”

But the number of tests being completed is also rising. State data shows nearly 600 Utahns were tested Thursday, and hospitals on Friday were announcing new ways to see more patients, including expanded drive-up options at some University of Utah clinics.

The U. health system had already set up a few drive-up testing stations, intended only for patients directed there by a doctor — mostly by way of a Virtual Urgent Care appointment.

But as wait times for the online appointments have grown to more than an hour at peak traffic — and cars have shown up at the testing stations even without doctors' referrals — the U. is switching tactics.

Patients are still asked to call the U. coronavirus hotline (801-587-0712) or set up an online appointment first. People will be tested for COVID-19 only if they meet the state’s criteria, said University Health spokeswoman Kylene Metzger.

“We don’t want people to get in the car, drive up, and be disappointed,” said Richard Orlandi, University Health’s chief medical officer for ambulatory health.

In order to be tested, patients must be experiencing symptoms (cough, fever and shortness of breath) and be at risk of exposure, either through contact with a confirmed coronavirus patient or recent travel to an area with widespread infection, Metzger said.

Patients who are examined onsite will remain in their cars as nurses check their oxygen levels and temperatures. Then a doctor, nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant will determine whether the patient may be tested, Orlandi said.

There are four stations for drive-up assessments and testing: Farmington Health Center, South Jordan Health Center, Sugar House Health Center and Redwood Health Center.

Each of the four sites can run 150 tests per day, Orlandi said.

The state has recorded tests for 2,147 Utah patients since the start of the epidemic, but that number excludes some tests conducted in private labs, which have been reporting only negative tests to the state since Thursday. Patients and public health officials have expressed disappointment in the slow arrival of testing supplies in Utah, which has prevented the state from developing accurate counts of the number of people infected.

Unable to identify and isolate everyone who has been infected or exposed, Utah and other states have imposed broad social distancing measures, closing schools, bars and restaurants, and forbidding gatherings of 10 or more people.

But Utahns should not expect to see the most rigid lockdowns, like those implemented this week in New York, California and Illinois. Governors in those states have ordered residents not to leave their homes except in certain exigent circumstances.

“At this point in Utah’s outbreak and where we’re going, we don’t anticipate needing to do any of the measures [those states] have put into place,” Dunn said.

The biggest increases in confirmed cases were in Salt Lake County (46 cases, up from 31), Summit County (35 cases, up from 26) and Davis County (12, up from 6).

The Weber-Morgan Health District reported two new cases on Friday, bringing the total to 6.

Tooele and Wasatch counties each reported one new case on Friday, bringing Tooele County to two cases and Wasatch County to four cases.

All newly confirmed patients were Utah residents.

"We expect to have more community spread,” Dunn said.

That’s why the state is stressing that people practice social distancing and stay home when sick, she said.

“We need to keep people out of the hospital, and as healthy as possible,” Dunn said, “to prevent that surge on our health care system.”

State officials are monitoring dwindling supplies of personal protective equipment, particularly masks, as hospitals nationwide turn to supplies of expired or sub-par gear. The state health department has a stockpile that can supply Utah’s hospitals with masks for two to three days, Dunn said, and it has begun organizing distribution — but hospitals also have their own inventories, she said.

“We have the ... [protective equipment] to handle the amount today, but not for the entire epidemic,” Dunn said.

Limited supplies of protective equipment have hampered testing, which itself requires doctors and nurses to wear masks, Dunn has said.

The drive-up exams and testing at the U. clinics require minimal contact, which should enable staff to conserve masks even while seeing more patients in person.

"We're trying to provide additional avenues for patients who are concerned," Orlandi said.

Orlandi acknowledged the stations may receive a rush of patients, but, he said, “We think we’re ready for them.”