‘Very challenging to navigate’: Utahns report frustrations in getting tested as COVID-19 cases rise

Intermountain doctor says “we really do need to ramp up” the availability and speed of testing.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) COVID-19 testing being done at a TestUtah site in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021.

Coronavirus testing has remained a struggle in Utah this week, with patients reporting long lines at test sites, days of waiting for results, and frustration with finding a way to get tested in the first place.

“Our availability of testing right now leaves something to be desired,” Dr. Brandon Webb, an infectious diseases physician for Intermountain Healthcare, said in a news conference this week. “We really do need to ramp up the availability of testing and the turnaround times. I think we’re all hearing about patients who are going in for testing and not getting the test results back for two or three days.”

For those who undergo tests that are processed in labs, state data shows, the wait for results is now longer, on average, than it has been at any point since widespread coronavirus testing became available in spring 2020. And delays in access and in results may mean the case counts reported by state health officials don’t fully reflect the spread of the virus.

President Joe Biden announced national initiatives Thursday “to make testing more available, more affordable and more convenient.” He promised to boost production of rapid tests and said major retailers — including Kroger, the supermarket chain that includes Smith’s stores in Utah — will start selling at-home tests at cost, beginning as soon as next week.

But for now, Utah patients say they still are struggling to get tested.

Many private providers like pharmacies and clinics still had almost no availability as of Thursday afternoon. CVS had no next-day appointments along the Wasatch Front, and Walgreens had only a handful statewide. And pharmacies have consistently been selling out of at-home tests.

University of Utah Health was restricting tests only to patients with symptoms and to those who were more than seven days past an exposure to someone already diagnosed — and as of Thursday, only two next-day appointments were available, one in Park City and one in Orem.

And the Orem company Nomi Health, which now operates almost all of the free TestUtah sites previously run by the state, still is seeing long lines at some of its locations.

‘Very challenging to navigate’

Dr. Christopher Pelt, an orthopedist at University Hospital, hunted for an available test after his teenage daughter fell ill Tuesday and found the nearest same-day site to his Park City home was a TestUtah site in Holladay. The line was long with only an hour left of scheduled testing operations, he said, and staff said that anyone still there at closing time would have to leave and drive to another site.

Pelt’s daughter ultimately drove back home after Pelt snagged a last-minute slot at the U.’s Park City clinic. But a computer glitch delayed her results for another three days.

“The whole system has been very challenging to navigate, and I’m a physician,” Pelt said. “I can’t imagine how hard this is for folks not in health care.”

Intermountain Healthcare drastically ramped up its testing in recent weeks with a self-serve saliva test available at various clinic locations; its testing volumes tripled in less than two weeks in mid- to late-August, Utah Department of Health data show.

Meanwhile, TestUtah has “made some operational changes” to relieve wait times at some of its sites, Hudachko said. The state health department last week transferred nearly all of its testing sites to Nomi Health, in order to redirect its own testing teams of National Guard members and public health workers to schools for “test to stay” operations.

But schools can’t begin test-to-stay requirements until they reach a 2% infection rate or, in smaller schools, identify 30 cases. And the difficulties with testing may be skewing the data on how many Utah children are contracting COVID-19, said Dr. Andrew Pavia, director of hospital epidemiology at Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital.

In a news briefing Thursday, Pavia noted that roughly a quarter of new COVID-19 cases being reported now in Utah are among school-age children — more than double the rate seen last winter.

“And that’s in spite of the fact that it’s fairly hard to get your child tested,” Pavia said, suggesting the rate could be even higher.

[Read more: Utahns’ choices are ‘hurting children,’ doctor warns, as more kids get sick with COVID-19]

Fewer test sites, longer waits

Right as state teams were diverted to schools that weren’t actually testing and Nomi took over the state’s public test sites, demand for tests exploded. Testing volumes are now reaching levels not seen since February; UDOH reported Thursday that 17,411 people had been tested for the first time the previous day, and a total of 27,882 people were tested.

Some of TestUtah’s sites, like the one Dr. Pelt’s daughter visited, have been overwhelmed — though others have not. Patients at TestUtah’s site at the UDOH office building last week reported lines so long that people, desperate for a bathroom, were jumping out of cars and relieving themselves in bushes. But this week, the same site has hardly had a line of more than three cars, Hudacko said.

Because waits have been so uneven since TestUtah began accepting walk-ins at all locations, UDOH is redirecting some of its testing teams from schools back to Nomi’s sites.

“The site operators will report back to us if they experience significant delays, and we’ll be supplementing staff at busy sites with mobile teams,” Hudachko said. The TestUtah sites also will no longer be taking appointments starting this weekend, making all of its sites first-come, first-serve.

UDOH and Nomi are both trying to hire staff to create more test sites, he added.

“We’ve got significantly fewer testing sites out there right now,” Hudachko said, referring to the drive-thru sites that health care systems opened earlier in the pandemic but discontinued as case counts dropped in the spring.

The longest test-turnaround times for lab-processed tests have been reported by TestUtah, whose average turnaround times last week began to exceed two days, according to UDOH data.

Nomi’s average test-processing time this summer has consistently been the longest of Utah’s five major lab groups, even though it also was handling fewer tests than other providers.

Sometimes that amounted to just a few extra hours on average. But compared to the state lab, TestUtah’s average turnaround time frequently has meant close to a full day longer wait for results.

While test turnaround times have been rising for providers statewide in recent weeks, none have risen more than at TestUtah, which now is handling more tests than any provider except Intermountain Healthcare.

ARUP is processing TestUtah’s tests. But its turnaround times for other providers, which had been similar to TestUtah’s, dropped sharply as it ramped up capacity last week, reaching just over a one-day processing time by Sept. 5. Meanwhile, TestUtah’s turnaround times have held steady at around two days; it’s not clear whether delays may be happening in the transportation of samples or in the lab work.

“There are two metrics that we look at: One of them is efficiency at the test site itself, and the other is efficiency in turnaround time,” said Tom Hudachko, UDOH spokesman.

Getting in line

But there also have been some problems at the sites themselves.

At the Holladay TestUtah Site, Millcreek resident Peter Alt said he arrived to find a line of about 100 idling cars.

“Two staffers were working hard but the process was super inefficient and once you were in the queue there was no way to escape,” Alt said. “I would have bailed but there was no way to get out.”

When a test site opened Wednesday afternoon near Highland High School, a line of cars quickly backed up to the school building, where confused drivers struggled to find the queue amid cars arriving to pick up students. One patient ran down the block to confirm the line actually was for a test site, since there were no signs.

Jayden Petter pulled up in line for what was his second try at getting a test. He had joined his family Tuesday morning at the Holladay site and got his test after about an hour wait, he said. But while his father and brother had gotten their results by the time they drove back home, Jayden’s account was empty.

“I called them this morning, and they said I didn’t take it,” he said with a laugh. “I guess they lost the results.”

Salt Lake City resident Monica Hoffmann had been waiting for about 20 minutes when she was halfway through the same line. She said she was just grateful to find a test close to home, after she was alerted to a possible exposure by a long-silent COVID-tracking app she installed on her phone early in the pandemic.

“All the other sites — they’re all booked. I tried CVS, Walgreens, I called the U.,” Hoffmann said. “It is hard to get an appointment right now.”

Biden said said his administration will expand the number of retail pharmacies where people can get free testing through the Department of Health and Human Services to 10,000 locations. It also will send 25 million free kits to 1,400 community health centers and hundreds of food banks across the country, he said, “so that every American, no matter their income, can access free and convenient tests.”

— Reporter Sean P. Means contributed to this story.