About two weeks ago, as Utah’s testing sites were overrun with patients amid a statewide proliferation of coronavirus cases, legislators suspended school testing requirements and Gov. Spencer Cox called on most Utahns to stop getting tested for COVID-19, even if they had symptoms.
With up to 50,000 Utahns getting tested each day and testing staff also falling ill, the state had maxed out its testing capacity. Supplies needed to be saved for patients with health risks or those who were likely to expose vulnerable people, state officials said.
Demand for testing has dropped in recent days, potentially freeing up the state’s testing capacity. But health officials say they don’t want Utahns to flock back to the state’s testing sites just yet.
“We are sticking with the guidance that symptomatic people still do not need to be tested for the time being,” said Tom Hudachko, spokesman for the Utah Department of Health. “But we are re-evaluating this guidance, and as we indicated when we first announced this change, we expect the guidance to eventually revert back to all people seeking testing.”
Here’s why health officials say they still are trying to ration coronavirus tests.
Case counts are so high that sick Utahns should assume they have COVID and isolate
Utah is averaging about 8,500 new cases per day — down from nearly 11,000 about a week ago, but still astronomically high compared to the average 1,500-1,600 cases per day the state reported during the fall, before the highly contagious omicron variant arrived. With so many cases, identifying individual patients and outbreaks brings diminishing returns, Hudachko said.
“Case counts have dropped somewhat but are still high, indicating less value in broad testing,” he wrote in an email.
Testing supplies are still lower than expected
For the past week, Utah has averaged about 30,000 COVID-19 tests per day — down about 25% from a week ago and just over half the testing volume Utah experienced in the days leading up to Jan. 14, when Cox asked lower-risk Utahns to stop getting tested.
But that doesn’t mean the state is now stocked up with unused test kits, Hudachko said.
“We have not received all of the additional tests we have ordered for the month, although the supply chain does seem to be stabilizing,” Hudachko wrote.
Health officials want to set up more test sites before reopening the flood gates
Before Cox told most Utahns not to get tested, patients reported waiting for hours at test sites, in some cases only to find out that no tests were left when they reached the front of the line.
As of Wednesday, Hudachko said, tests were going more smoothly.
“We are currently meeting demand without overwhelming the testing system,” he wrote. " ... Our sites are currently experiencing about 10 minute waits at appointment-only sites. Walk-up sites report waits of about 30 minutes, but this fluctuates from day-to-day and site-to-site.”
To avoid overwhelming test sites once again, Hudachko said, the state is trying to set up more of them before once again recommending all Utahns get tested if they develop symptoms or are exposed to someone who’s infected. Health officials converted existing sites at the Maverick Center and Brigham Young University into “high-volume sites” this week, Hudachko said. Two other high-volume sites are scheduled to open next week at the University of Utah and at Utah Valley University.
“We would like to have this additional capacity fully in place before reverting to the previous guidance,” Hudachko wrote.