Coronavirus testing is getting increasingly difficult in Utah, just as cases are rising precipitously amid the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant.
Patients who tried to get tested in recent days described long online searches for appointments, confusion over doctor referrals and insurance coverage, and drive-thru lines so long that people were relieving themselves in bushes.
“At every turn, I either ran into a roadblock or a ‘next week,’” said Jody Genessy, a Vineyard resident who said he spent hours last weekend trying to get a test after his 8-year-old son — who is too young to be vaccinated — developed mild symptoms.
Online registrations for testing appointments were evaporating quickly. Of 14 state-provided TestUtah sites in Salt Lake County, only two had next-day availability as of Tuesday; in Utah County, next-day testing was available only at the Payson site. None of Walgreens’ testing locations in Salt Lake or Utah counties had any appointments available as of Tuesday, according to the company’s website, and only three Davis County and three Weber County locations had “few appointments available.”
TestUtah slots appeared to free up early on Wednesday, but disappeared as the day went on. And of more than 40 Walgreens testing sites in Utah, the only next-day appointment as of Wednesday afternoon was in Vernal.
“Appointments are booked out two days,” said Cottonwood Heights resident Neil Hartner, who struggled to find a test slot last weekend when he developed coronavirus symptoms a few days after his children tested positive. He also eventually tested positive, even though he was fully vaccinated.
Some of those who got appointments reported long lines. Murray resident Kristen Clifford said she waited more than 90 minutes with her sick family for tests she scheduled at the Utah Department of Health office building in Salt Lake City. Patients desperate for a restroom began relieving themselves in bushes, she said.
UDOH spokesman Tom Hudachko said he had “heard the same anecdotes about longer waits.”
“Makes sense as we are doing more testing,” he said.
But not everyone encountered lines. During the lunch hour Wednesday, the line for COVID-19 testing at the UDOH office in Salt Lake City was moving briskly. A Salt Lake Tribune reporter timed his visit, from online registration to getting swabbed, at 14 minutes.
Hudachko acknowledged that test appointments may be harder to come by, even if the lines at the sites aren’t always long.
“With a surge in cases, we expect more demand for testing,” Hudachko said. “And with the large-scale sites shut down, people may need to be more patient and anticipate longer waits.”
Those larger sites had been operated by health care providers like Intermountain Healthcare and University of Utah Health.
Both hospital systems are now providing tests via appointments — but those also can be complicated.
A test site for University of Utah students and employees canceled 120 tests set for Thursday afternoon because the parking area at the site was slated for tailgating in advance of the Utes’ first football game of the season, the school confirmed. The test sites added a number of appointments the next day to accommodate those whose tests were canceled, but it still amounts to further delay for tests that already were scheduled more than a day in advance.
“This is a lesson learned,” said U. spokesman Shawn Wood. “We’re coming back to campus and figuring out what our new normal is, and making sure we’re communicating the best we can with each other.”
Meanwhile, Genessy said he and his son ended up at an Intermountain urgent care clinic on Saturday after first trying to get tested at a TestUtah site in Orem. But at the Orem site he realized he had signed up for his time on the wrong day; the only same-day availability was in Brigham City, nearly two hours’ drive away.
He said he tried to get his son tested at the Orem TestUtah site anyway, since only three or four cars passed through in the 20 minutes he was there. But staff at the site told Genessy they were only authorized to provide a set number of tests, he said.
So he took his son to the American Fork InstaCare, where a large crowd had gathered in the waiting room Saturday. A receptionist there said his son first needed to get a referral from his pediatrician.
“They said to schedule an appointment with your IHC provider, and schedule a ‘Connect Care’ visit, and download the app, and then I’d have to go to coronavirus.utah.gov and schedule a second appointment, but that’s what sent me to TestUtah,” Gennesy said.
Confused, he called his family doctor, but he said a staffer there told him she wouldn’t be available until Monday.
“She had no clue what I was talking about with the second appointment, and she wasn’t sure what a Connect Care visit was,” he said. (Connect Care is Intermountain’s remote-care platform for online doctor visits.)
He asked the InstaCare staff whether his son could just get a referral from a doctor there, but they warned him it could be expensive.
“She said ‘Depending on insurance, it could be up to $150,’” Gennesy said. “I thought it was supposed to be free.”
Ultimately, he paid a $35 copay for the urgent care visit, which he said required a two and a half hour wait, and his son was tested there. It came back negative.
Gennesy said he took his son out for ice cream to make up for the wasted Saturday and to celebrate the negative test.
“It turned out to be a four-hour excursion from Vineyard to Orem to American Fork and back,” he said. “It was a series of people not knowing what to do, or just denying me. I know it’s a struggle and I don’t want to be too critical of the medical community because I think they’re heroes. I just think some of these things could be easier.
“With the cases going up, I’d think they’d want to get as many tests administered as possible.”
The number of tests is rising; Utah this week saw the most tests administered since mid-March, according to UDOH data.
University of Utah Health administered about twice as many COVID-19 tests last week as it did in early June, said Michael Bronson, director of the hospital system’s community clinics.
”Our testing volume has always been a harbinger of what the virus is doing,” Bronson said. When case counts go up, he said, testing goes up.
As far as the capacity to perform tests at U. Health locations, Bronson said, “we’re really maxed out right now.”
One reason is that the U. health system has had to reallocate staff away from testing and toward other services, Bronson said. The system is seeing high volumes of patients seeking treatment for respiratory ailments, urgent care, and such specialty treatment as cancer care, he said.
Also, some staffers have been reassigned to administer COVID-19 vaccinations, he said, and soon will be giving out flu shots.
”We just have this overwhelming demand on the outpatient side for our services, and so we have to manage our resources and manage capacity,” Bronson said.
Also, Bronson said, U. Health has not been immune from what’s called “The Great Resignation” — the rising number of employees nationwide, particularly in the health care field, quitting their jobs, either because of burnout or a chance to find something better.
Typically, Bronson said, someone who is insured through University of Utah Health who tries to book an appointment online for a COVID-19 test may not get one until the next day — or may find no appointments available “because we only book out appointments two days in advance.”
In those instances, Bronson said, U. patients can check with the Utah Department of Health’s website, coronavirus.utah.gov, to find a testing site. The sites formerly operated by the state are being transferred to private contractor Nomi Health, so that state employees can prepare to meet demand for testing at schools.
Several people getting tested at the testing location at UDOH offices Wednesday were in their 20s or 30s. Some said they were going to see the Jonas Brothers at Usana Amphitheater on Friday night. The pop trio is requiring all ticket holders to show proof of either being vaccinated against COVID-19 or a recent negative test. Other concerts, including those at the Eccles Theater and some of the Ogden Twilight shows, have set similar requirements, another driver of new demand for tests.