Story of TestUtah is connections and campaign cash over knowledge and experience, George Pyle writes

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A TestUtah site alongside Utah Valley Pediatrics at 750 W 800 North in Orem on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021.

One of the symptoms of COVID-19 is a loss of the sense of smell. That’s no excuse for not knowing that, more than two years since the launch of the program to conduct widespread coronavirus testing in Utah — and, later, at least four other states — the whole operation stinks.

Keeping track of the program has kept squads of investigative reporters busy all that time. The more they look into it, the worse it all looks.

The Salt Lake Tribune was on the story from the beginning, in the spring of 2020, documenting how the roll-out of TestUtah involved millions of dollars in no-bid contracts, a chain of command that basically froze out the state’s public health experts in favor of budget managers, politicians, lobbyists and a Who’s Who of the state’s tech entrepreneurs.

Over the ensuing months, The Tribune has reported in no small detail how TestUtah’s competence and value were questioned by public health experts at the state and national level.

How sloppy handling of coronavirus test kits was called out by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which told TestUtah that, “deficient practices of your laboratory pose immediate jeopardy to patient health and safety.”

How concerns about how quickly the stock price of test provider Co-Diagnostics rose 35,000%, then collapsed again, led to a lawsuit from some investors and an inquiry from the Securities and Exchange Commission.

How more than 170,000 tests processed at the behest of TestUtah by Timpanogos Regional Hospital were considered untrustworthy, though nobody bothered to tell the people who had been tested.

How an early version of the website used to screen nervous Utans for COVID-19 testing pushed people toward use of an unproven — then and now — malaria drug as if it could cure coronavirus.

How the owner of an online pharmacy business with connections to Nomi, as well as to members of the Utah Legislature, wangled, and later lost, a contract to sell the state $800,000 worth of said hydroxychloroquine.

The story soon drew the attention of The New Yorker, which built on reporting done by The Tribune and by journalists in Iowa and Nebraska, to sketch a picture of how TestUtah was replicated in those states, as well as to Florida and, for a time, Tennessee, all based less on public health expertise or accomplishments than on lobbying, contacts and political influence.

In the last couple of weeks, USA TODAY began rolling out its own detailed recounting of how the Orem-based Nomi Health, a company that then could boast no experience in public health matters, wasted no time in early days of COVID panic 2020 to begin promoting itself and Silicon Slopes allies including Co-Diagnostics, Domo and Qualtrics as the entrepreneurial solution to a growing public health emergency.

The USA TODAY reporting team advanced the story by connecting the dots between the mostly no-bid contracts awarded to Nomi and its allies — eventually $219 million worth — and some $1 million in contributions made by Nomi, its CEO Mark Newman, Domo and Qualtrics to the Republican Governors Association and the Republican State Leadership Committee, which in turn donated to the campaigns of Republican leaders in the states where it was doing business.

Spencer Cox, Utah lieutenant governor and pandemic czar before being elected governor in 2020, received $200,000 from the RGA. Cox said his decisions were not influenced by that gift, which came before the TestUtah axis started writing its checks.

One tool any state or county needs in fighting a public health emergency is trust. The trust of the public that the decisions made by government, even those made on the fly in a crisis, are made with the best interest of the people at heart, not under the influence of entrepreneurs who may not know a blood test from a driving test but who know how to network, influence and lobby.

Whatever one may think of the go-getters at Nomi, Co-Diagnostics, Qualtrics and Domo, the fact is that none of them work for the taxpayer, for you. They work for their owners and stockholders and it is their job to hustle at every opportunity to turn a profit.

But our governor, our Legislature, our state budget office and our state health department do work for us. It is their job, not the tech wizards of Utah County, to seek out the real experts on the matter at hand — in this case, testing, tracing and quarantining as a way to minimize the physical and economic damage wrought by a global pandemic.

It is not right that the history of COVID-19 testing in Utah has involved so many politicians and private companies and so few experts, not only from the state and county health departments but also the top-flight health care providers at the University of Utah and Intermountain Healthcare.

There will be more reporting. There should be more investigation by independent state auditors and the Legislature.

From all of this, our state should build a plan on how best to handle the next pandemic — monkeypox, COVID-23 or who knows what. It must be a deliberate, public process, led by public health experts, who earn their seats at the table with knowledge and experience, not networking and the promise of big campaign contributions.

George Pyle, reading The New York Times at The Rose Establishment.

George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, is proudly quadruple vaxxed and is hoarding a stash of home COVID tests he ordered through the United States Postal Service.


Twitter, @debatestate