Utah has ‘maxed out’ its COVID-19 testing capacity, which could hide the full surge in cases

If recent record-breaking case counts continue to rise, we may not know it, health officials say.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Health workers with the Utah Department of Health test the public for COVID-19 at the testing site in the parking lot of the Utah Public Health Laboratory building in Taylorsville Dec. 30, 2021. Utah has maxed out its capacity to test for COVID-19 cases, health officials say.

With more than 48,000 Utahns tested for the coronavirus in a single day this week, Utah has exceeded its testing capacity, health officials confirmed.

Unless the state can obtain more testing supplies and providers, future case counts — while record-breaking — could drastically understate the actual prevalence of the virus.

“We’ve maxed out our ability to identify cases,” Dr. Angela Dunn, director of the Salt Lake County Health Department, said in a county council meeting Tuesday. “So as we start seeing a potential plateau in our cases, it’s not due to spread, it’s due to the limited ability to test. We are turning people away from our testing sites.”

The Utah Department of Health on Wednesday confirmed that Dunn’s appraisal is likely accurate. As case counts rose over the past week, test volumes stabilized at around 41,000 to 44,000 tests per day, said Tom Hudachko, UDOH spokesman.

On Wednesday, that testing figure surpassed 48,000 — but that may have been from school testing events rather than increased availability for the public, Hudachko said.

“We can’t determine an absolute statewide capacity,” Hudachko said. “But ... there is some indication we may have reached our capacity, or are close to it.”

State coronavirus case counts also do not include positive results from at-home tests.

“Undoubtedly, there are more cases than we are currently capturing due to both at-home tests and people who are unable or unwilling to be tested,” Hudachko said.

Utah’s case counts rose dramatically during the first week in January, from about 4,000 cases per day to about 9,000 cases per day. This week, case counts have continued to rise to over 10,000, but the increase has not been as sharp.

“If we continue to see a plateauing of cases in the coming days, it could be more a reflection of reaching maximum testing capacity than a true plateau in positive cases,” Hudachko said. “Percent positivity and currently hospitalized patients may reflect a more complete picture of disease transmission and severity than individual case counts.”

Preliminary data from this week show the percent of positive tests has held steady at around 21% in recent days — by far the highest rate since the pandemic began. But that figure could rise if the virus spreads faster than the state’s testing capacity can be increased.

“We have orders placed with multiple vendors for increased testing supplies, and also will be adding additional high-volume test sites and self-serve kiosks,” Hudachko said, noting that a new self-serve testing kiosk opened Wednesday in St. George.

But Hudachko did not say where those supplies would come from or who would staff them. At one test site Friday, a patient reported seeing test-site employees who had been taken off duty as cars accumulated in line. She was told they needed to be tested themselves, because a COVID-19 outbreak was suspected among the staff.

UDOH has asked employees in various departments to work at test sites because of “the spike in demand,” Hudachko said.

But now the state is “working to manage demand,” he said — that is, urging residents to potentially forego testing if it proves difficult and if they aren’t at high-risk for serious illness. Already the state has said its free sites will not test people who want to be tested to attend large gatherings like concerts and sports events, or people whose employers require them to get tested before reporting to work.

Now, Hudachko said, “if someone is symptomatic and can’t find testing easily, they should assume they are COVID-positive and isolate at home for five days from when their symptoms began.”

People who are at high risk for serious illness — as well as people who spend time around vulnerable people, or in health care and congregate living environments — should still try to get tested if they are exposed or symptomatic, Hudachko said.

Hudachko noted that state health officials have “never relied on one single data point to guide its response” and also look at percent positivity, hospital data, deaths and other metrics to identify trends.

“Despite not being able to give a perfect number of current infections, the data is clear; COVID-19 is spreading rapidly in all communities in Utah,” Hudachko said. “Utahns should understand the trend is very concerning, and very obvious, even with many cases being missed.”