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Utah health officials puzzled by low demand for testing; 60 new COVID-19 cases reported

Only 218 out of 2,363 cases officially considered ‘recovered’

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn steps to the podium during the daily COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 13, 2020.
State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn steps to the podium during the daily COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 13, 2020.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah health officials said Monday they’re seeing a low demand for testing for the new coronavirus and they don’t know why.

“That’s the million dollar question. We’re really trying to figure out,” said Dr. Angela Dunn, epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health.

Utah reported 60 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Monday — a smaller rise compared to the previous several days. The new cases bring the state’s tally up to 2,363 confirmed cases out of 45,787 people tested.

An additional 1,500 people have been tested since Sunday, according to the Utah Department of Health. The state is capable of administering up to 5,000 tests per day.

Officials also announced Monday a definition for those who have recovered. Those diagnosed with COVID-19 more than three weeks ago who survived are considered “recovered.” Dunn said 218 have recovered under that criteria.

In response to fewer people getting tested, Dunn said COVID-19 testing will now be available to anyone with mild symptoms — including a fever, cough, shortness of breath, muscle aches and pains, a decreased sense of taste or smell, or a sore throat.

More people getting tested will be pivotal in health and government officials’ decisions about when to loosen social distancing measures, which would include opening schools and businesses.

The growth rate of Utah’s cases has been declining over the past several days, but officials need to look at a two-week trend when making decisions because of the virus’ incubation period, the epidemiologist said.

“So we’re hoping this trend stays consistent, but in order to really have faith behind the numbers, we really need to get more people tested so we have more confidence in our understanding of the burden of the disease throughout Utah,” Dunn said.

The state health department is working with testing sites to help them understand the expanded criteria so those with any one or more of the six symptoms associated with COVID-19 won’t get turned away, she said.

Meanwhile, ARUP Laboratories late last week began performing “very limited” antibody testing at University of Utah Health and Intermountain Healthcare.

“Health care professionals who provide patient care or who have been directly involved in COVID-19 molecular diagnostic testing are receiving the antibody test. Antibody testing will play an important role in the COVID-19 pandemic because it can tell us if a person has been exposed to SARS-CoV-2 — even if that person never exhibited any symptoms or received a molecular diagnostic test,” Dr. Julio Delgado, ARUP vice president, chief medical officer and director of labs, said in a statement.

But antibody tests can’t determine whether someone is immune to the virus as there have not yet been extensive studies on it, Delgado said.

Val Hale, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, checks his notes prior to giving updates on funding for small businesses during the daily COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 13, 2020.
Val Hale, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, checks his notes prior to giving updates on funding for small businesses during the daily COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 13, 2020.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“There is still much to learn about SARS-CoV-2, and new information is discovered each day that will help us understand how to use antibody and other testing to manage COVID-19. ARUP researchers will be part of this discovery process as ARUP works toward a goal to expand availability of the testing in the coming weeks,” he added.

The lack of demand for testing in Utah comes even as other states are facing severe limits in their abilities to test. But improving surveillance nationwide will become increasingly important as social distancing measures get loosened, or we will see the pandemic “just escalate again,” according to Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, associate professor at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Singapore, for example, did not implement strict social distancing measures, but instead brought down its cases through “very aggressive case-based interventions.” Likewise, South Korea quickly ramped up its testing to bring its numbers down, Nuzzo said.

But each state has been affected by a national shortage of personal protective equipment, swabs and the reagent required to run the tests.

“Part of improving our surveillance is expanding our testing capacity. ... But if you talk to almost any public health practitioner in any state, testing is severely limited. And having limits to testing really limits planning and response for dealing with the next phase in the COVID-19 response,” Nuzzo said Friday.

While testing strategies are up to each state, some experts have called for a uniform nationwide strategy.

States do need some flexibility, but each having their own approach “limits our understanding of what’s happening across the nation. So at the very least, we need to understand the state-by-state approaches. We need a much more coordinated approach to thinking about how to expand testing and, in particular, eliminate some of the bottlenecks,” Nuzzo explained.

When asked Monday whether a national testing strategy would benefit Utah, Dunn noted that every state is in a different phase of the pandemic and has different testing capacity.

“Right now, our testing strategy is working for us, we just need more people to seek it out,” she said.

State officials want to see a steady decline in cases before loosening social distancing measures. Maintaining testing capacity, continuing contact-tracing and isolating those at risk will also be important as measures are loosened, according to Dunn.

Joe Dougherty, public information officer for the Utah Division of Emergency Management, speaks during the daily COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 13, 2020.
Joe Dougherty, public information officer for the Utah Division of Emergency Management, speaks during the daily COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 13, 2020.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

No new deaths were reported Monday, leaving the death toll in Utah at 18. So far, 201 people have required hospitalization at some point during the pandemic. That number is up six since Sunday.

The Beehive State on Monday also discontinued the use of text alerts at state line areas that directed visitors entering Utah to submit information in a declaration survey. Instead, the Utah Department of Transportation will deploy message signs directing drivers to visit entry.utah.gov. The change came after officials said some who live near the alert areas received the Amber Alert-type of message multiple times.

The breakdown of Utah COVID-19 cases by health district as of Monday:

  • Salt Lake County, 1,157; 98 hospitalized
  • Utah County, 322; 18 hospitalized
  • Summit County, 306; 26 hospitalized
  • Davis County, 204; 21 hospitalized
  • Wasatch County, 103; 5 hospitalized
  • Weber-Morgan, 103; 9 hospitalized
  • Southwest Utah, 57; 9 hospitalized
  • Bear River, 49; 8 hospitalized
  • Tooele County, 34; 4 hospitalized
  • San Juan County, 9; 2 hospitalized
  • Central Utah, 6; 1 hospitalized
  • Southeast Utah, 5; 0 hospitalized
  • TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 8; 0 hospitalized