Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing free access to critical stories about the coronavirus. Sign up for our Top Stories newsletter, sent to your inbox every weekday morning. To support journalism like this, please donate or become a subscriber.
The number of new coronavirus cases reported in Utah was lower again Monday, with an increase of 354, compared with 473 on Sunday.
That brings the seven-day average to 435 new cases a day, according to the Utah Department of Health (UDOH) — down from Sunday’s weeklong average of 447.
The number of people tested also remained on the low side, with an increase of 3,466. Still, the percentage of tests with positive results for the past week was at 9.8%, just over a week after the average dipped to 9.1%.
“We are doing some analysis to try to determine if there are specific geographic areas experiencing a bigger [testing] decline than others,” said Tom Hudachko, UDOH spokesman. “So far, the decline appears to be statewide.”
The current statewide capacity for analyzing tests is generally 7,000 a day, and it appears the most completed in a single day was 8,138 on July 13, Hudachko said.
The state also has been collecting data on the percentage of clinic and hospital patients who arrive with symptoms consistent with COVID-19, Hudachko said, and those numbers also have been decreasing for a few weeks.
“It could be that there are fewer sick people out there,” he said, “and that could explain some of it.”
That’s also what staff at the University of Utah’s four drive-up testing centers suspect. In the past two weeks or so, the number of daily tests dropped from about 1,700 per day in mid-July to 1,300 per day last week, said Michael Bronson, administrative director of U. Health’s community clinics.
And that doesn’t appear to be tied to a reduction in testing hours at the outdoor sites in the past week or so, due to triple-digit temperatures, said Kathy Wilets, U. spokeswoman. Although testing stops midday, the centers added staff and lanes to collect the same volume of samples, she said. But even during the shorter hours of operation, crowds have dwindled.
“There seems to be a link between demand in testing and the number of positive cases we see statewide,” Bronson said — not just that the lower testing numbers naturally result in fewer positive results, but that rises and falls in demand “tend to be a bellwether of what the virus is doing.”
“It’s good — and we’ve ... watched at least a correlation with the mask mandate going into effect in Salt Lake County,” Bronson said. “Whether or not that’s causal, definitely you’re seeing the correlation. We’re encouraged by what we’re seeing so far, and we hope that people continue to take those precautionary measures.”
Summer vacations may also be behind the testing lull, said Dr. Anthony Wallin, who oversees Intermountain Healthcare’s Instacare clinics.
“It’s not uncommon in this time of year to see a decrease in [demand for health care] because of vacationing,” Wallin said. The sharp drop-off in testing after the Pioneer Day holiday could correspond to people’s vacation schedules, he noted.
As Utahns become more accustomed to the presence of the virus in communities, they also may be feeling less urgency to get tested, especially since a positive result doesn’t affect the treatment a patient receives, Wallin said. That may be especially true for people who are young and at lower risk of serious illness, he said — a group well-represented in Utah’s population.
“The younger crowd might be losing interest in being tested,” he said.
The decline in testing has occurred at Intermountain facilities statewide, with about 15% fewer tests being conducted since Pioneer Day, Wallin said.
State health officials plan to talk with staff at sample collection sites to learn if they have further information, Hudachko said.
Many factors may affect how many tests are administered in a day, said Dr. Jonathan Genzen, chief operating officer for ARUP Laboratories. They include the number of people with symptoms in need of testing for contact tracing, how many people a collection site can handle, and the level of public awareness for how to get tested. There also are factors that affect whether a patient can get to a test site, such as weather, holidays, schedules and transportation, he said.
ARUP is one of the five main labs processing COVID-19 tests in Utah, Hudachko said, plus some smaller labs. One of the major labs, the state-operated Utah Public Health Lab, has the capacity to process 1,116 tests a day, or sometimes a bit more in a surge.
Each day last week, Hudachko said, the lab began with a backlog between zero and 539 tests in the queue, but cleared those tests every day. The daily rate of positive tests at UPHL has ranged from 3.5% to 8.7%, he said.
Utah isn’t the only state to have seen decreased testing last week. According to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, a clearinghouse of data about COVID-19 from across the country, Utah is one of 26 states whose per-capita test rates went down in the past week.
Those included some of Utah’s neighbors: Colorado, Idaho and Nevada. Test rates went up in 13 states, including Arizona and Wyoming, and the District of Columbia. Rates stayed steady in 11 states.
There were 207 people hospitalized in Utah on Monday for COVID-19, with 2,450 patients admitted since the beginning of the pandemic — up 20 from Sunday.
The death toll from the virus stood at 314 on Monday, with three new fatalities:
A Davis County woman, age 65 to 84, who died in a hospital.
A Salt Lake County woman, age 65 to 84, who died in a hospital.
A Salt Lake County man, age 45 to 64, who died in a hospital.
Of 41,529 Utahns who have tested positive since the beginning of the pandemic, 29,967 are considered “recovered” — that is, they have survived for at least three weeks after being diagnosed.