Utahns still report problems getting tested for coronavirus despite expansion push

(Scott G Winterton | Deseret News/pool) Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, speaks during the daily COVID-19 briefing from the Presentation room at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 13, 2020.

Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing readers free access to critical local stories about the coronavirus during this time of heightened concern. See more coverage here. To support journalism like this, please consider donating or become a subscriber.

Utah’s top epidemiologist made another plea Monday for anyone with coronavirus symptoms to get tested even as some residents reported barriers to doing so.

State epidemiologist Angela Dunn noted that Utah has loosened yet again the criteria for receiving a test. Those showing any of six symptoms — fever, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, muscle aches or loss of taste or smell — are encouraged to be checked for COVID-19.

But Utahns who say they have one — or even more — of those symptoms maintain providers continue, at times, to turn them away.

When asked Monday about those reports, Dunn said the state is working with health care facilities, “ensuring that they’re using expanded criteria.”

The Utah Department of Health reported a 3% rise in COVID-19 cases Monday, bringing the statewide total to 2,363. The death toll stood at 18, and 201 people have been hospitalized.

The 60 new COVID-19 cases represent the smallest increase since March 25, and the percentage bump is the lowest since the virus arrived in Utah. The state, however, has tended to report fewer new cases on Mondays.

Dunn said 218 people in Utah have recovered from the coronavirus. It’s the first time she has offered such a number. She previously said there was no agreed-upon definition of recovered.

“We basically turn the clock back three weeks,” Dunn said. If a person started suffering symptoms of COVID-19 three weeks ago, and hasn’t died, then the state considers that patient recovered.

Recovery could be an important statistic in determining when to ease social distancing and reopen businesses and venues. Some countries have measured the number of daily recoveries versus new infections as a metric for determining whether COVID-19 mitigation is working.

Dunn, echoing requests last week from Gov. Gary Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, made another appeal Monday for Utahns with symptoms of the coronavirus to be tested. She said those with one of those six symptoms should contact their physician or go to www.testutah.com to submit for a COVID-19 test.

(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

Dunn stressed that health officials “really need people to get tested for COVID-19 throughout the state.”

“We have seen this decrease in demand for testing,” Dunn said, adding that the state has more testing sites and has lowered the criteria for who should get tested.

But there were still reports Monday of Utahns being rejected at testing sites even though they had symptoms of the virus.

Emily Coleman, who lives in Utah County, said her ex-husband had a fever and cough Sunday.

He went to a drive-thru testing site in Lehi operated by Intermountain Heathcare. Staffers there took his temperature, Coleman said, then sent him home without administering a test and told him to monitor his symptoms.

“I’m pretty frustrated," Coleman said. “I would’t have told him to go if I hadn’t read from Dr. Dunn and Spencer [Cox] and the governor that anybody could go and be tested.”

Coleman said the inability to get a test impacts her family. Her daughter, who already can’t go to school or play with friends because of social distancing guidelines, now can’t go to her father’s because he’s either infected with the coronavirus or might be. The girl also was with her dad this weekend, and Coleman worries her daughter could have contracted the coronavirus and pass it to her.

Jess Gomez, a spokesman for Intermountain Healthcare, said he couldn’t speak about a specific case, but that the health care provider is testing anyone with one of the symptoms.

Intermountain has 20 testing locations from St. George to Burley, Idaho, he said.

“We’re very eager to test as many people as possible who meet that criteria," Gomez said, "and that’s our goal.”

At University of Utah Health, its coronavirus website Monday set a stricter criteria for testing than did the state health department. U. Health said it was limiting testing to people with a fever and one of those other symptoms or people with underlying health conditions that had mild respiratory symptoms.

On Monday afternoon, Richard R. Orlandi, chief medical officer for ambulatory health at U. Health, suggested a loosening of the testing criteria there.

“We worked collaboratively with our partners over the weekend to finalize these new criteria,” Orlandi said in a statement. "With these updated criteria, we are now testing individuals with fever, shortness of breath, new or worsening cough, sore throat, muscle aches, or loss of sense of smell or taste. These updates will make testing available to more symptomatic patients.”

Salt Lake County has 1,157 of the state’s COVID-19 cases. According to statistics supplied by the county health department, 75% of positive cases reported having a cough. More than half the patients who tested positive reported having a fever.

Other common symptoms were muscle aches (61%), headaches (54%), chills (47%), shortness of breath (45%), a sore throat (37%), loss of taste (30%) and loss of smell (28%).