SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah, in partnership with its business school and ARUP laboratories, will be randomly testing Utahns to find out how widespread COVID-19 actually is in the state.

“This data is sorely lacking,” Taylor Randall, dean of the David Eccles School of Business, said Wednesday. He said knowing how many people have already had the virus is necessary before the economy can further open.

“We just have many more unknowns than knowns,” Randall said.

So, he’s sending out students who don’t have other work for the summer to recruit households in Utah, Davis, Salt Lake and Summit counties for antibody testing. But the results won’t be available until high levels of participation can be achieved, as the numbers play into the accuracy and interpretation of the data.

The Utah Health and Economic Recovery Outreach project aims to reach and randomly test 10,000 people.

The Utah Department of Health reported an additional 146 people in Utah tested positive with COVID-19 — a 2.7% daily increase that brings the total number of confirmed infections to 5,595, with 464 people hospitalized in the state.

Another two Utahns have died with COVID-19, both female residents of separate long-term care facilities in Salt Lake County. One of the women was over age 85 and the other was between the ages of 18 and 60, the health department reports.

The state has tested at least 131,002 people who have had supposed symptoms of the novel coronavirus since mid-March.

“We know that many have suffered and many have sacrificed” during this time, said Maj. Gen. Jefferson Burton, acting director of the Utah Department of Health. He said the state will be deploying Utah National Guardsmen to help expand the capacity for testing and tracing disease throughout communities in the state and at the state laboratory.

Burton said churches in Utah are permitted to resume operation, so long as they can maintain the “nonnegotiable” 6-foot social distancing standards set by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

President Russell M. Nelson, of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the state’s predominant faith, tweeted Wednesday, saying the church will “continue to monitor information and assess how soon we may again gather in our meetinghouses and temples.”

“We are grateful for the helpful direction that government, health and civic leaders have provided to keep us safe,” President Nelson said in an accompanying video message posted by the church on YouTube. “And we will continue to be careful and proceed with an abundance of caution. Your safety and well-being will always be our utmost concern.”

He said they will communicate clearly when and where church activities may be resumed.

“We need to take these guidelines seriously,” Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, said on Wednesday. She said the health department could be conducting contact tracing for the next year or two as this virus continues to spread.

Utah’s rate of positive tests has hovered around 4.2% for a couple of weeks, which Dunn said is “a really good sign.” The national rate, she said, is between 15% and 18%.

Further reopening of the economy and getting back to normal, however, Dunn said, can’t come until there is also a decline in the number of cases reported daily.

“There are a lot of factors to take into consideration when determining the best policy for Utah,” she said, adding that the biggest worry remains hospital capacity.

“We have been fortunate enough to not see a strain on our health care systems so far,” Dunn said.

The state has also maintained a fairly low death rate, at 0.97%, Burton said, “one of the lowest in the nation.”

“We don’t want to rush forward too quickly,” he said, adding that he’s aware of the personal impact the economy has had on many Utahns and understands the push for fewer restrictions.

Because testing wasn’t widely available in earlier months, the novel coronavirus could have potentially spread to an unknown number of people who are no longer symptomatic. Some of those people experienced illness and others did not, which is why it remains unknown how prevalent the infection has been.

Without knowing, Randall said it is difficult to know whether opening the economy is safe.

Understanding the “true infection capability in our state,” he said, will help health officials make strategic decisions and “maximize our capacity to get the economy going.”

“We are unable to account for infections not detected,” said Steven Alder, director of field operations for the HERO project and a U. professor of family and preventive medicine. The initial phase of antibody testing, he said, will focus on areas in the state that have the most confirmed cases of COVID-19.

People randomly selected for the antibody testing will first need to be tested for COVID-19, submitting to a nasal swab as well as a simple blood draw to test for antibodies. Antibodies would indicate previous exposure to the virus, said Matthew Samore, chief of epidemiology at the U. He said the ratio of undetected cases to those detected could be as high as 5 to 1, “maybe 10 to 1, or possibly more.”

View Comments

Anyone in Utah with even just one supposed symptom, he said, is still encouraged to get tested.

Julio Delgado, chief medical officer and director of labs at ARUP, said it remains unknown whether COVID-19 antibodies provide protection from contracting the virus, but, he said, it’s likely.

“We know that prior coronavirus infections produce immunity (to other coronaviruses) and we don’t think that’s going to be different with this,” he said, adding it is unknown whether previous exposure to the virus will help fight against a second infection or if immunity will be long-lasting.

A breakdown of Utah COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths by health district:

  • Salt Lake County, 2,912; 266 hospitalized; 37 deaths
  • Utah County, 1,210; 65 hospitalized; 10 deaths
  • Summit County, 382; 33 hospitalized; 0 deaths
  • Davis County, 308; 26 hospitalized; 2 deaths
  • Weber-Morgan, 173; 23 hospitalized; 2 deaths
  • Wasatch County, 170; 7 hospitalized; 1 death
  • Southwest Utah, 128; 13 hospitalized; 3 deaths
  • San Juan County, 126; 12 hospitalized; 2 deaths
  • Tooele County, 70; 6 hospitalized; 0 deaths
  • Bear River, 64; 10 hospitalized; 1 death
  • Central Utah, 26; 2 hospitalized; 0 deaths
  • TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 14; 1 hospitalized; 0 deaths
  • Southeast Utah, 12; 0 hospitalized; 0 deaths
Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.