Silicon Slopes has tested a wide swath of Utah for coronavirus — even people without symptoms

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Jarrod Phillips felt fine, but a digital newsletter he subscribes to encouraged him to take the coronavirus survey at TestUtah.com.

The Farmington resident answered the questionnaire Wednesday. Despite his lack of symptoms, the website booked Phillips an appointment for the next morning at a free COVID-19 testing center in South Ogden.

“I think everyone would be curious whether they have it,” Phillips said, “whether they have symptoms or not.”

While the Utah Department of Health has pleaded for people with any of six symptoms to get tested for the coronavirus, a coalition of Utah’s technology sector, in partnership with state government, has extended testing to a wider group: those without signs of COVID-19 but who are selected by an algorithm.

The TestUtah.com effort has used a social media campaign with the slogan “Crush the Curve” and “Test Utah Challenge” to steer people to the website. It is an example of the varying messages about testing delivered to Utahns and other Americans.

Health experts have said widespread testing is necessary to stop the spread of the coronavirus, given research showing people without symptoms can carry and spread it. Yet some states don’t have enough COVID-19 tests for even the obviously sick residents they have.

In Utah, however, state epidemiologist Angela Dunn has said the state has more testing capacity than demand. During the past week, she has pleaded for those with any of six symptoms — fever, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, muscle aches, or loss of taste or smell — to seek testing even if their symptom is mild.

Dunn has stopped short of endorsing the testing of asymptomatic people through TestUtah.com or elsewhere. She said a group from Utah hospitals and other public health components have set the testing criteria she has promoted.

(Steve Griffin | Deseret News/pool) Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, speaks during the daily COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 15, 2020.

“It’s my understanding that [TestUtah.com is] looking to come on board with the guidelines that have been set,” Dunn said at a news conference Thursday, “... and that’s what we’re recommending to them.”

“There is a place for asymptomatic testing in this pandemic,” she added moments later, “but it’s necessary to have a very thoughtful approach in terms of recruiting who should be tested if they don’t have symptoms, so we can accurately interpret those results and use good data to inform policy going forward.”

‘Following their lead’

In her weekday news conferences, Dunn has directed anyone with symptoms to the state’s coronavirus website. On Friday, the state announced 6,093 new test results and noted that the number included 3,388 new negative results from TestUtah.com that had not previously been reported.

It was unclear Friday whether asymptomatic people could still be selected for testing. Clint Betts, executive director of the nonprofit Silicon Slopes organization, said the TestUtah.com operators were working with state health officials and “following their lead.”

There also is a concern that people with no COVID-19 symptoms but who are carriers of the virus are more likely to have a false-negative result. That could distort epidemiologists’ understanding of hot spots and discourage the asymptomatic person from social distancing.

“There’s no harm in getting a test if you’re asymptomatic,” Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who has led the state’s coronavirus task force, said this week. “We do know the validity of those tests [goes] down a bit. Certainly asymptomatic people who have the disease [are] out there.

“If people have the desire to get tested and start to figure out where some of that is, the broader the testing we do, the better off we’re going to be. We would still rather find somebody who is asymptomatic and has the disease."

As of Friday afternoon, 55,771 COVID-19 tests had been administered in Utah, according to the state health department. Data from TestUtah.com says it had facilitated 8,143 of those as of Friday morning.

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file) Dave Elkington, the then-CEO of InsideSales.com speaks in 2018.

TestUtah.com was created and is administered by Silicon Slopes and a coalition of Utah technology firms. Dave Elkington, chairman of the sales platform Xant and a co-founder of Silicon Slopes, said the website is using an algorithm and methodology based on the testing criteria approved by the state health department.

But on days when demand is lower than testing capacity, Elkington said, the state makes the decision to increase or decrease the criteria for testing, permitting TestUtah.com to refer some asymptomatic people for testing.

“The algorithm is determined and dictated by the state,” Elkington said Friday. “We are the facilitator.”

Three Utah companies — Nomi Health, Domo and Qualtrics — have contracts with the state to operate the website and testing. The contracts were issued through the office of Gov. Gary Herbert and have not been made public, but representatives of Silicon Slopes have said all data collected by the website belongs to the Utah Department of Health.

Elkington said he doesn’t know how many asymptomatic people have been tested or how many of the tests facilitated by TestUtah.com came back positive. Even aggregated data, he said, goes to the state.

Drive-thru sites

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) COVID-19 testing at Timpanogos Regional Hospital in Orem on Tuesday, April 14, 2020.

Besides facilitating testing, TestUtah.com also has received about 77,000 evaluations submitted by website visitors. That information, which includes personal details as well as whether the respondent has suffered a job loss or mental health problems due to the pandemic, also has been submitted to the health department.

Those who are selected for COVID-19 tests are directed to a drive-thru test site in Provo, Orem, Heber City, South Ogden, Roosevelt, Vernal or St. George. All tests are free.

That made a big difference for Melinda Layten, 43, who lives in Lehi with her husband. She lost her job in December and was trying to find a new one when the pandemic ruined all her prospects.

She then began experiencing a cough that she assumed was caused by seasonal allergies. Layten said her life could be put at risk if she contracted COVID-19 due to a previous viral infection of her heart.

“I was 95% sure it wasn’t COVID,” Layten said. “We’ve been practicing social distancing, taking precautions. We were always using the hand sanitizer, but there’s always that nagging concern in the back of your head that something’s wrong.”

After uploading her information to TestUtah.com, Layten was referred to the testing site in Orem on April 10. She received her result, a negative, the next evening, easing her mind.

“Our country as a whole is not doing a good job” getting people tested, Layten said. “So I really appreciate that the state is stepping up and taking care of things like this.”

Specimens from Layten and other subjects are collected by trained medical personnel wearing personal protective equipment — another resource in short supply across the country and which yet could be scarce in Utah.

(Rick Bowmer | The Associated Press) A Co-Diagnostics lab technician works with sample tests as the company produces COVID-19 testing kits Friday, March 27, 2020, in Salt Lake City.

The specimens are tested with a kit created by Co-Diagnostics, a Salt Lake City company. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave emergency approval April 3 to the kit. The tests are processed at a lab at Timpanogos Regional Hospital in Orem.

Elkington said TestUtah.com has been able to provide each test and its result to the state at a cost of about $50 a test. Some news outlets have reported stories of individuals elsewhere paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a single test.

TestUtah.com has been boosting its capacity. It facilitated 1,626 tests Thursday, Betts said. Elkington said its operations can process up to 6,000 a day if the state asks for it.

Elkington said he has spoken with an executive at Apple in charge of health care products and four state governors about what Utah and Silicon Slopes is doing and whether it can be replicated elsewhere. He declined to name the governors.

Phillips, the Farmington resident, saw getting tested as doing his part to slow the coronavirus.

“The more people that are tested,” he said, “the more accurate the numbers will be and the better idea we will have of how to deal with something like this.”

Phillips was waiting for his results as of Friday afternoon.

— Tribune reporters Erin Alberty and Courtney Tanner contributed to this report.

Editor’s note • Clint Betts serves on The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.