Utah is handing off its COVID testing sites to private contractors. Here’s why.

The state’s health department is redeploying staff to help with testing events at schools.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) TestUtah Covid-19 testing at the 800 North location in Orem, Tuesday, June 9, 2020.

The state health department is outsourcing operations at nearly all of its COVID-19 testing sites as the agency shifts staff for an anticipated surge in testing demand at schools.

TestUtah, the coronavirus testing initiative launched last year by a group of tech companies, this week began managing 15 out of 16 of the state’s fixed sites, according to Tom Hudachko, a spokesman for the Utah Department of Health (UDOH).

UDOH will continue to handle testing at its public health lab.

Hudachko said the health department needed to hand off operations at its testing sites to free up its personnel for “Test to Stay” events at schools around the state.

The decision to outsource more testing means Nomi Health, the company that holds the TestUtah contract, will garner an additional $1.58 million from the state between Aug. 30 and Oct. 2, according to Hudachko. He said officials will reassess the situation in late September to determine if they should continue with the arrangement.

Nomi Health and other tech companies behind TestUtah at first cast their plan as a philanthropic endeavor but quickly changed course. Nomi Health has taken in more than $22.6 million from the state over the course of the pandemic, according to Utah’s spending transparency website.

Under its agreement with the state, Nomi Health gets paid between $75,000 and $125,000 each month to run a fixed testing site, with the amount varying depending on how many samples it collects each day. There are also compensation adjustments for sites that aren’t open full-time, Hudachko said.

The state’s COVID-19 website shows that TestUtah currently manages nearly 40 testing sites across Utah, including the ones it took over from the health department.

A Salt Lake Tribune analysis earlier this year concluded that each test conducted by TestUtah costs more than double the cost of similar tests performed by public agencies. State health officials have chalked up this higher per-test cost in part to the fact that TestUtah offers testing in hard-to-reach and underserved areas.

And with the start of classes, Hudachko said, UDOH must redeploy its own testing teams to help head off coronavirus outbreaks among students.

A new Utah law requires schools with an attendance of more than 1,500 to conduct coronavirus testing — or “Test to Stay” events — if more than 2% of their students test positive for COVID-19 within two weeks. For smaller schools, this “Test to Stay” threshold is triggered when 30 or more students contract COVID-19 over a 14-day period.

A student must test negative to keep attending school in person.

When hosting these events, schools work with the health department to offer testing for all students and any staff members who want it. UDOH is supposed to support these initiatives by offering supplies and mobile testing units, if needed, according to the agency’s website.

Hudachko said the state’s health department is “gearing up to conduct ‘Test to Stay’ events at least through December.”

Health experts are warning that the start of classes will likely bring a wave of new coronavirus infections, particularly among children younger than 12 who are still ineligible for vaccination.

The state saw a spike in cases last year when instruction started — even though some schools were meeting remotely and strict masking and social distancing protocols were in place for all in-person classes.

That won’t be the case this year, now that state lawmakers have banned schools from enacting mask mandates.

This week, the U.S. Department of Education announced it was investigating Utah and four other states with similar policies, looking into whether the mask bans are discriminatory toward students with disabilities or health conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID-19.

While face covering mandates are still possible in Utah schools, they must come as a recommendation from the local health department, and county commissions or councils have the power to overturn them. So far, only Grand County has completed this process, issuing a 30-day mask mandate for K-6 students.