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Utah tech companies aim to assess, test everyone, find COVID-19 hot spots

Health care workers operate a drive-thru COVID-19 test center at the University of Utah Health’s Farmington Health Center in Farmington on Thursday, April 2, 2020.
Health care workers operate a drive-thru COVID-19 test center at the University of Utah Health’s Farmington Health Center in Farmington on Thursday, April 2, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A unique partnership between Utah and its burgeoning tech and startup industry is hoping to find out where the new coronavirus will strike next in the state, as well as make more testing available throughout Utah.

A new website, TestUtah.com, aims to give Utahns a secure place to assess the symptoms they may or may not be feeling, direct them to a growing number of available test sites and better track who is sick and what resources are available to help.

“One of the biggest obstacles and hurdles we’ve had to overcome is the lack of testing,” Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday, adding that his goal has been to test 7,000 people a day. He said officials have worked around the clock to find solutions and the #TestUtahChallenge could be the answer.

The number of Utah’s confirmed COVID-19 cases reached 1,074 on Thursday, with 100 hospitalizations, according to the Utah Department of Health.

The health department also reported that 21,065 people have been tested in Utah to date — which is less than 1,000 additional tests than were reported on Wednesday, likely because of decreased demand over the weekend and a two- to three-day turnaround for results, according to state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn.

“A huge part of solving this pandemic here in Utah is to identify people with COVID-19, so any initiative that allows us to identify more positive COVID-19 cases allows us to do better public health initiatives such as contact tracing, investigation, isolation and quarantine,” she said.

The efforts of Silicon Slopes’ companies, Dunn said, will help the health department do its job “better and more broadly.”

More than 4,000 Utahns had already participated in the online assessment process shortly after it was announced Thursday afternoon.

TestUtah.com aims to not only flatten the rising curve of infection, but “crush the curve,” said DOMO CEO Josh James. He said “everybody needs to assess” and the people who need tests will then be directed to them, until there is a capacity to test everyone, which he believes will come.

Completion of the assessment triggers an email providing each user a unique QR code, as well as information about the nearest testing center based on the person’s location.

It will not only help track occurrence of the disease, but also aid in tracing efforts to help slow the spread of the virus across the state.

The effort is a part of a broader Silicon Slopes initiative to mobilize the tech community in a public-private initiative to combat the COVID-19 epidemic via SlopesServes.com, where members of the community can find business resources, donate to the COVID-19 Community Response Fund, volunteer and donate medical supplies.

“This is about people,” Herbert said. “These are our neighbors and our loved ones. This will allow us to drive people to get an assessment of their own health. It’s not just finding out who has it, but finding people who don’t.”

The initiative has already opened two mobile testing sites, in Orem and Provo, which can each accommodate up to 500 tests per day.

Instead of multiple days of waiting for results, the group says it has a 24-hour turnaround, according to Nomi Health CEO Mark Newman, who came up with the idea.

The group has set up “unique supply chains,” essentially open-source health care, to obtain the materials necessary to test more people, even though tests have been in short supply around the globe.

“This is a hard time. It’s spreading in Utah. It’s real,” said Ryan Smith, co-founder and CEO at Qualtrics. “But we have a chance to get ahead of it in Utah.”

Utah is one of the top 10 states when it comes to per capita testing for COVID-19, according to Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox. He said testing needs to be ramped up before the state can let up on social distancing and isolation orders currently in place.

“We need to know where the virus is to know how we’re doing,” he said. “We all know there is only so long we’re going to be able to do this (extreme social distancing).”

Cox said that while additional testing measures are being rolled out, it is even more important for Utahns to stay home, particularly in the next two weeks.

“We are building capacity so we don’t have to live our lives in shelter all the time,” he said.

Smith said he’s seen from 25 office locations around the world what happens when a country’s government gets behind, especially on testing.

“Getting ahead is going to be what makes Utah different,” he said, adding that Qualtrix will not take money from the initiative. “If we were trying to make money, this wouldn’t be where we put our efforts.”

None of the Utah tech companies helping to design the startup are making money off the testing being done, they said.

“There probably hasn’t been a time in the history of the state that’s been more challenging,” said Utah Senate President Stuart Adams. “We’ve never had anything like this that has challenged our economy, our health system, our family and loved ones and things that we hold dear.”

Adams said, “no one innovates better than people in Utah.” And, because of that, he said, “we are going to get on top of this.

“We can bend that curve, bend the demand on hospitals, reduce the need for ventilators.”

A breakdown of Utah COVID-19 cases by health district:

  • Salt Lake County, 476
  • Summit County, 204
  • Davis County, 103
  • Utah County, 105
  • Wasatch County, 61
  • Weber-Morgan, 53
  • Southwest Utah, 30
  • Bear River, 19
  • Tooele County, 13
  • San Juan County, 5
  • TriCounty Health Department, 2
  • Southeast Utah, 1
  • Central Utah, 2