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TestUtah marches on, new COVID-19 test labs set to come online after state vetting

SHARE TestUtah marches on, new COVID-19 test labs set to come online after state vetting

Ashley Sargent, medical lab scientist, left, and Abby Rainey, medical lab scientist, run TestUtah COVID-19 tests in a magnetic induction cycler at Timpanogos Regional Hospital in Orem on Thursday, May 28, 2020.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The state’s competitive bidding process has led to a handful of new COVID-19 testing contracts including one that will keep the contentious TestUtah project in play until 2025.

And while TestUtah has drawn criticism as an effort that was born under the auspices of a philanthropic effort before quickly segueing to a multimillion dollar no-bid public contract, some of the new service provisions come with their own hefty price tags.

One local and three out-of-state laboratories have signed contracts with the state to provide COVID-19 test processing services to provide backup and additional capacity to the work being done by Utah’s state medical lab. Those contractees include Salt Lake-based ARUP; Fulgent Therapeutics, of California; Laboratory Corporation of America (LabCorp), of North Carolina; and Premier Medical Laboratories, of South Carolina.

Prices for those testing services vary widely, from a volume-discounted low of about $50 per test from Premier Medical to $100 for each test from LabCorp. With Utah’s daily test volume hovering around 6,000 the past week, that could mean costs varying from a low of $300,000 to $600,000 per day just for COVID-19 test processing if the new contractees were used.

Utah Department of Public Safety spokesman Joe Dougherty said the point of the state-administered request for proposals, one that winnowed a dozen initial submissions down to the four successful awardees, was to provide additional testing capacity for an anticipated uptick in cases as summer comes to an end.

“Lab capacity is such a huge issue right now, especially going into the fall and wanting to be ready,” Dougherty said. “We need to be able to keep up with expected increases.”

Right now, COVID-19 test processing is taking place at the state’s lab, ARUP and at Timpanogos Regional Hospital, which has been processing the majority of the TestUtah samples as well as the health care provider’s own in-patient tests. The facility at Timpanogos was the focus of a federal audit in June that found multiple issues with the lab’s processes, which have since been addressed according to the operators. The Orem-based facility also participated in a College of American Pathologists assessment in July of over 1,400 U.S. labs performing COVID-19 tests and scored a 100% accuracy rating, according to a lab representative.

While the Timpanogos lab was not awarded a contract in this proposal process, Dougherty noted that a second round of submission requests that is focused only on local diagnostic labs just closed and additional contracts will be announced in the coming weeks.

Dougherty said part of the impetus behind the new contract effort is to bolster the state’s ability to perform quick-turnaround testing. The three out-of-state contractees promised lab processing that ranges from one to four days, but shipping to and from the facilities can add a day or more to the timeline.

“A quick turnaround time is really important to our operation,” Dougherty said.

Tom Lee, Premier Medical’s vice president of lab services, said his company’s operations are highly automated and currently have both excess capacity and some very fast processing times.

“We’re one of the fortunate labs that got machines early and have lot of automation here,” Lee said. “We’ll quote three to four days but right now ... some things are being done in eight hours. And, we have plenty of capacity here.”

Lee said that even though Premier’s lab facilities are in South Carolina, a partnership with UPS accommodates overnight deliveries and returns from clients around the country thanks to direct shipping flights.

While TestUtah and the TestUtah.com assessment website are brands owned by the state of Utah, Nomi Health will continue to administer the website and numerous drive-thru test sites around the state under its new contract.

Nomi’s deal, which runs through July 2025, stipulates $75,000-$125,000 per month per sample collection site, depending on volume; $30,000 per month to operate a contact center to respond to residents’ questions about the sample collection, scheduling, testing and results; and $2,000 per month to manage the TestUtah.com website. The effort currently includes eight testing sites across Utah and two mobile test vans that can be deployed to community hot spots.

While initial deals struck with Nomi Health and others early in the novel coronavirus pandemic where made under emergency orders, Dougherty noted this round of contracts represents a return to the state’s usual vetting procedures.

“As time goes by and things start to settle down, you get to go back to your normal processes,” Dougherty said. “These contracts were put out for competitive bids in the normal way of doing businesses. It’s a sustainable and transparent process.”