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As COVID-19 testing slows, Utah has 1,738 cases and reports no new deaths

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Medical teams test patients at the drive-thru testing center at the Timpanogos Regional Medical Center in Orem, Tuesday April 7, 2020

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Utah health officials say the state has the capacity to test about 4,500 people a day for the coronavirus. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has said he wants to get to 7,000 a day. And a state partnership with the nonprofit Silicon Slopes and others announced last week was designed to expand testing.

But on Tuesday, the number of new tests reported — up 1,253 from Monday — was the second-lowest daily count since March 26.

The Utah Department of Health also announced the state has 1,738 total confirmed cases, an increase of less than 4% from Monday, with no new deaths, leaving the state’s death toll at 13. Ten more patients had been hospitalized for symptoms of the virus, bringing the total COVID-19 hospitalizations in Utah to 148.

Herbert said at a Tuesday news conference — which he opened wearing a mask and a white ribbon to show support for health care workers — that the state is doing a good job of administering tests for COVID-19. But he added there are “pinch points” with laboratories processing the results.

“We’d like to test everybody. We don’t have the capability of testing everybody," he said. "We’d like to test and make sure there’s no backlog of people waiting who have symptoms. We have the ability to do [tests on screened, symptomatic patients] with virtually no backlog.”

State epidemiologist Angela Dunn said there are concerns about a shortage of swabs, but she did not immediately elaborate on whether there is a current shortage in Utah, or on Herbert’s comment that the labs are a “pinch point.”

Dunn said the reason test results were low was a lag in negative tests coming in, and decreased demand for testing over the weekend.

The state typically had been reporting at least 2,000 new tests a day, and up to almost 3,800 tests in a single day. At least 34,647 patients had been tested as of Tuesday.

“We’re having much more, I think, success giving the test," Herbert said. "The challenge we face right now to me is a little bit on the laboratory side, where we have a little bit of pinch points. The laboratory can’t keep up with the tests that are being given. So we’re a little concerned about that."

But administrators at ARUP Laboratories in Salt Lake City said the lab has the capacity to process about 4,000 tests a day — far beyond the volume of tests the lab has received in recent days.

“We’re not getting close to that right now,” said Brian Jackson, a medical director for ARUP. The number of tests arriving for processing has been down since Sunday, he said. Jackson said he and others at ARUP did not know the reason for the decline.

The governor said the state would "like to get up to ... 7,000 tests a day, which’ll be a good number to make sure that all those that really have any kind of symptoms will have the ability to be tested.”

Dunn reiterated that the state isn’t looking at day-to-day numbers about virus cases, and instead at two-week trends. Utah has consistently had a 5% positive rate as the number of tests administered has increased, she noted. That’s a lower rate of infection than other states, which have been at about 19% positive.

Dunn asked Utahns to continue to follow social distancing practices, to help drive the number of cases down.

Earlier in the Tuesday news conference, the governor said: “I feel very good about where we’re at with our hospitals, our ICU bed space and accommodations there."

Dunn said the state is getting counts on the number of ventilators available. The decision of whether or not to donate ventilators to the Strategic National Stockpile will be up to the governor and the head of the strategic command, she said.

At the beginning of the news conference, Herbert said: “We’re very concerned about those who are infected with coronavirus, for those families impacted, our hearts break for those who have lost loved ones.”

He then moved to descriptions of assistance programs available to Utah businesses, pointing out that the state is also trying to mitigate an economic crisis. “People act … like we can only care about one and not the other … when in fact they are both joined together," he said.

He added: “My call to action … is for every Utah business with less than 500 employees that has been impacted" by COVID-19 to apply for the federal aid available.

Derek Miller, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber and Downtown Alliance and leader of the governor’s economic response task force, urged businesses to apply for Paycheck Protection Program loans. The program authorizes up to $349 billion in forgivable loans to small businesses to pay their employees during the COVID-19 crisis.

Herbert said there are also loans that small businesses can apply for. At the federal Small Business Administration, applicants can get an automatic grant of up to $10,000 to help address immediate needs.

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