Some Utahns refuse to get tested for COVID-19 — including a state lawmaker. Health officials are worried.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

On social media, in rallies and at campuses across the state, growing groups of Utahns are declaring that they won’t get tested for COVID-19 — even if they have symptoms.

Some say they don’t want to contribute to the rising numbers that could push their schools to close. Others don’t want to be forced to quarantine for two weeks. A few suggest the results wouldn’t be accurate anyway and insist the severity of the pandemic is a hoax. And one state lawmaker is refusing because he worries it would put him “on the radar” if he tests positive.

“The health department doesn’t need to know if I’m sick or not,” said Rep. Mark Strong, a Republican from Bluffdale.

These individuals are Utah’s test deniers. And public health officials worry that they’re making the state’s already bad situation with the virus worse. Just one anti-tester, they warn, has the potential to cause significant amounts of spread without any way to trace where it’s coming from — or any way to control it.

Take a case at Brigham Young University as an example.

The school has been a hot spot, with the highest rates of COVID-19 of any college in the state. And several students there have been adamantly against getting tested, including those who started a petition against randomized testing and other requirements. Ellie Crook, 19, lives with one of them.

Crook is a sophomore and sharing off-campus housing with five other women. One of her roommates, she said, began feeling ill around Sept. 14, a Monday, but quickly brushed it off as “just feeling tired.”

The roommate didn’t tell anyone at the time that she’d also lost her sense of taste and smell — some of the more obvious symptoms of COVID-19. And, Crook said, “she just went about like normal, going to class and practices.”

By Wednesday of that week, though, another roommate in Crook’s suite said she was feeling off. On Thursday, a third reported she was nauseous and had a headache. Crook suggested everyone get tested. The first roommate who felt sick refused, even after finally telling the others about her symptoms.

“She thought they’d give her false results,” Crook recalled. “She also said her parents were against getting tested, and she was going to listen to them. I couldn’t believe it.” The roommate kept repeating, too: “I don’t want BYU to get shut down.”

The next day, Friday, Crook began to experience symptoms; she said she hadn’t been around any other known exposure. She and the four other roommates then got tested. All were positive.

Another 20 people who those five women had been in close contact with were instructed to isolate; a handful of them also tested positive. But health officials never had a chance to trace whom the first roommate had been in touch with because she wouldn’t get tested. She never quarantined like the others, either, because she didn’t feel required to.

In that same week in September when she was first sick, BYU’s cases jumped from 560 to 1,014.

“Who knows what she’s responsible for and how many others she could have infected,” Crook said. “I was just livid. If she would have got tested early, it could have saved me from getting sick. I wouldn’t have had to have the virus.”

A matter of belief

Those who are adamantly against testing — much like those who oppose mask wearing, which seem to go hand in hand — describe it as a personal belief or conviction. Often it’s political.

Denna Robertson, a 65-year-old grandmother who lives in Provo, stoutly and proudly proclaims: “I will not get tested. That’s my right.”

It doesn’t matter what health experts say, she added, even if she’s considered more at risk because of her age.

Robertson, a registered member of the far-right Constitution Party, theorizes there are political motivations behind COVID-19 and that goes as far as officials wanting more positive results. She said she knows of a friend’s daughter, for instance, who went to get tested in Utah. The woman checked in, but there was a long line and she was running late for work. She drove off without getting a swab.

Robertson said the woman was alerted a few days later, though, that she was positive for the virus.

“How could that be?” Robertson said. “She didn’t even get tested. I have to believe it’s part of a deeper plan. There is a sinister motive behind this to keep fear going in people.”

Robertson strongly distrusts the government. And she helped lead a massive protest in Provo this July that made national headlines, pushing back against a mask mandate with more than 100 people gathered tightly together in one boardroom.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) A group protesting against masks removed the social distancing tape on the chairs and filled the Utah County Commission room on Wednesday, July 15, 2020.

She believes politicians — and others, including tech billionaire Bill Gates — are using the virus to try to make average citizens powerless and docile. For one thing, the restrictions are decimating small business, Robertson said, including her dance studio in Utah County, where she’s reported major losses this year without being able to hold competitions. Officials are using the positive test numbers, she added, to keep her and others shut down.

“There’s no need for all of these draconian measures,” she said. “We are being played. But until the people decide they are going to be smart and not take it anymore, I guess they’ll keep being prisoners.”

Robertson told The Salt Lake Tribune that she’s felt emboldened by President Donald Trump, who has continued to downplay the severity of the virus — even after he tested positive. The mentality seems to have taken hold in Utah County, one of the most conservative areas in the state, as well as the deeply red Washington County in southern Utah.

A real estate agent there posted on social media, “STOP GETTING TESTED,” which was shared widely among his friends. He and several other vocal test opponents refused to talk to The Tribune, with a few calling it “a liberal rag.”

They talk about refusing tests, though, on social media as a way to thwart government officials from imposing more rules and restrictions. Several have encouraged their followers not to get a test so that the numbers don’t rise and gatherings aren’t shut down. They talk about it in terms of freedom and rights. The real estate agent, for instance, wrote that he hopes to stop any statewide mandates telling him what to do.

Derek Robison, a Kaysville resident, said he doesn’t think the tests would be accurate anyway and would just falsely inflate the totals.

“When one of the brightest minds in our generation, Elon Musk, says we should have concerns about the accuracy of the tests, then I’ll listen,” he said. “There is a lot of anecdotal evidence of false positives across the country. It makes me wonder, with the vast amounts of asymptomatic carriers ... are they really asymptomatic, or did they just receive a false positive?”

Similarly, a new account on Instagram called Utah Tonight is planning a protest dance party on Halloween. The group appears to be targeting students at BYU, much like the Young/Dumb company run by former students that has been blamed for hosting hundreds of young people at parties without masks and contributing to spread in Utah County.

Utah Tonight posted in its stories last month: “Here is a thought: Stop getting tested. If we stopped getting tested and just use common courtesy when we are sick, the case count will go down and the parties will be back!”

It urges people not to give the state more statistics that it will “use against us.” Messages sent there for comment were not returned. But Robertson willingly spoke for them, “I say to the college students: Party on.”

No way to contain

That encouragement doesn’t sit well with Dr. Angela Dunn.

The state’s epidemiologist said she’s heard of high school coaches telling their players not to get tested so games don’t get canceled. She said some moms, too, have been putting ice packs on their kids’ heads so they don’t seem to be showing a fever and can continue going to class. They won’t get tested to confirm they are positive.

Dunn fears those test deniers are helping to drive the major spread currently happening in Utah, where unwanted records are being smashed daily. On Thursday, cases here topped 1,500. Deaths surpassed 500. And some areas saw rates as high as the worst days of the pandemic in New York City.

“We’re likely missing positive cases because individuals are not getting tested,” Dunn said during a news conference about the challenges of contact tracing. “You must go get tested. This is the only way we will know where the spread of COVID-19 is. We need to know that.”

She paused. “Please help us.” It was the first time a state leader had publicly acknowledged that residents who refuse testing were becoming problematic in Utah.

It’s since been echoed, though, by Gov. Gary Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox. Herbert later said: “We’re concerned about those who don’t want to get a test.” And Cox has tweeted specifically about BYU, noting he has seen “reports that many sick students aren’t getting tested.”

Without an individual getting a positive result, Dunn says, a person is less likely to adhere to quarantining. People may think they’re fine to go to a store or a family gathering because they were never confirmed to have COVID-19, for instance, and unwittingly pass the virus on to untold numbers.

“But for every individual who doesn’t get tested and should, they’re putting their community at risk for more spread, more hospitalizations and more deaths,” Dunn told The Tribune.

She said it has the opposite impact that some people refusing to get tested might think. Instead of being able to catch the first or second case in a school or on a sports team and get that person isolated, it spreads to others. And then things do start shutting down, despite the effort to keep cases under wraps.

‘This resistance’

During an interim education committee meeting last month, Utah lawmakers discussed how to help teachers more easily get tested for the coronavirus after many expressed concerns about classrooms reopening and increased risks.

Most of the feedback was positive. Then Rep. Strong appeared on the video call.

“I’d prefer to not even be tested at all,” he said, turning the conversation in a different direction. “It puts me on the radar.” He added that many of his neighbors feel the same.

Dunn pushed back, calling his viewpoint “unfortunate” when there’s been so much spread. But he countered that the state has, by instituting quarantine mandates and mask requirements in schools, created “an atmosphere that has caused this resistance.”

With those brief remarks, Strong became one of the most prominent voices to join in the opposition to testing in Utah. And data shows that his perspective might just be as commonplace as he suggested.

While it’s hard to quantify exactly how many Utahns are choosing not to get tested, for the past week 13.8% of all COVID-19 tests in the state have come back positive. That’s a rate that indicates a large number of infected people are not being tested, state officials have explained.

Utah also has the ability to test about 10,000 people per day. One day last week, though, for instance, health officials reported results from only about half as many. And that day wasn’t an outlier. The state routinely sees below-capacity counts of individuals opting to get swabbed.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Health care workers perform COVID-19 testing at Intermountain Park City Hospital on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020.

Strong says he’s staying away because he doesn’t like that the state health department can penalize those who don’t quarantine for 14 days if they test positive. That can include a misdemeanor charge. Strong said that’s what he means by not being on their “radar.” He doesn’t want anyone watching if he stays home or not; he doesn’t think it’s their business.

“I’m not interested in partaking in that,” he said. “People are more concerned about the repercussions of having COVID, like the quarantining, than actually having COVID.”

Dunn insists that the penalties have not been used, but they are there to warn people that this is serious.

Strong added that he shouldn’t be forced to be at his house if he doesn’t want to. If he felt sick, he suggests, he would choose to. And he hopes most others would do the same. “Yes, I think there’s a faction out there that has no regard,” he acknowledged. “We have very smart people in this country, though, and we can keep ourselves protected.”

The individualism of testing opponents collides with the collectivism that health officials say is needed to get the virus under control. Dunn says everyone has a responsibility to wear masks, stay home when sick and get checked to help one another.

She feels they’re denying much more than just tests.