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Utah COVID-19 test turnaround times vary widely, audit finds

362 new coronavirus cases reported Tuesday, 4 new deaths

Loretta Muller and Chris Larsen with University Healthcare conduct COVID-19 testing at the U. Wellness Bus at the Central Park Community Center in South Salt Lake on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020.
Loretta Muller and Chris Larsen with University Healthcare conduct COVID-19 testing at the U. Wellness Bus at the Central Park Community Center in South Salt Lake on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — After finding that COVID-19 test turnaround times in Utah range widely across providers from just over 24 hours to more than 72 hours, auditors are calling for more transparency from providers and efforts to shorten those times as the state scrambles to keep its new cases down ahead of the school year.

“Quicker turnaround time with regard to test results will enable those who test positive to react quicker and begin practicing appropriate measures to help keep themselves and others safe,” Utah Department of Health officials said in a statement Tuesday.

Among their recommendations, auditors from the Office of the Legislative Auditor General urged Gov. Gary Herbert’s office to coordinate with the Utah Department of Health to “clearly articulate” a goal for test processing and notification times.

They also say the health department should bring together a commission of health care providers to determine result notification time, and make those times — as well as average test processing time by lab and geographic location — available on the state health department website.

“The Utah Department of Health concurs with the five recommendations made by the auditors regarding to COVID-19 testing in Utah. We are doing everything possible to get the changes implemented by the end of August,” department officials said in a statement.

Slower-than-needed turnaround times is a problem facing states across the U.S. months into the pandemic, according to Harvard and Northeastern University researchers. In a national survey conducted between July 10 and July 26, 37% of those who received a nasal swab test said they received their results within two days, while the average wait time was just over four days.

Meanwhile, 31% of tests took more than four days, and 10% took 10 days or more, according to researchers.

The study found the median wait time in Utah was three days.

While the Utah auditors were able to determine the time range between when a patient gets tested and when their result gets sent to their health provider, they were unable to figure out the average time it takes before the results get back to the patient — another important metric, according to the Office of the Legislative Auditor General.

Providers aren’t required to let the state health department know when results ultimately get communicated to a patient.

“While we do not have access to this data, we were concerned to learn that one major provider discontinued calling patients with negative test results altogether when testing demand and volumes increased in June and July,” according to auditors. That “could lead to significant impacts to patient health and livelihood.”

The name of that test provider was not released in the audit.

Meanwhile, as some labs have “refined” testing processes to increase capacity through methods like making notifications to patients online and hiring more staff, some labs’ processing times “are not improving, potentially from an inability to adequately manage large volumes of daily tests,” auditors said. Testing sites in rural areas, for example, face delays due to the need to transport test samples to labs.

It’s important for tests to be processed quickly, and notifications made to the patient promptly, so the patient can know to limit their exposure to others if they are positive. Waiting for test results can also lead patients who are uninfected to unnecessarily miss additional days of work, auditors noted. Delays in test processing also lead to delays in contact-tracing efforts.

“We believe transparency in test processing times empower patients with information to make the most informed decisions about their health and economic situation,” auditors wrote.

School reopening advisory board

As school is set to resume soon, a group of doctors, public health officials and others from the State Board of Education is advising the state on reopenings.

The 20-member COVID-19 School Health Advisory Workgroup isn’t calling any shots, but it will be providing recommendations. The group co-chaired by state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson had its first meeting Friday, said Utah Department of Health spokeswoman Charla Haley.

She said the meeting was not public but would not answer a question about why it was closed. The group did not hash out any recommendations during its first meeting, Haley confirmed.

The panel will provide input on issues like mask mandates and metrics used to measure spread in different communities, and plans to bring in others depending on the topic, according to the health department.

Its members include: Joseph Miner, the executive director of the Utah Department of Health; three other health department employees; four doctors from the University of Utah health system; seven representatives of local health departments across the state; Utah school nurse consultant BettySue Hinkson; and two more State School Board employees.

New cases

Utah health officials reported 362 new cases of the novel coronavirus and four additional deaths on Tuesday.

The new cases were confirmed of 3,989 tests, for a positive rate of about 9.1%, according to the Utah Department of Health. They bring the state’s total cases since the pandemic began to 44,752 of 578,549 people tested, a 7.7% positive rate.

The rolling seven-day average for new cases is 399 per day, and the average positive test rate is 8.9%.

Currently, 189 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 in Utah, four fewer than on Monday. The state’s intensive care units — which have about 600 beds overall — are 60.1% full with coronavirus patients and others, while other hospital beds are 46.6% full.

The four deaths reported Tuesday bring the state’s toll to 349. They were all Salt Lake County residents and include a man and woman between ages 65-84, and a woman older than 85, all of whom were long-term care residents; and a man between 45 and 64 who was hospitalized when he died.

Just under 35,000 of the state’s cases are considered recovered after surviving the three-week point since their diagnoses.

The latest breakdown of Utah cases, hospitalizations and deaths by health district:

  • Salt Lake County, 20,903; 1,365 hospitalized; 200 deaths.
  • Utah County, 8,887; 418 hospitalized; 37 deaths.
  • Davis County, 3,256; 184 hospitalized; 21 deaths.
  • Southwest Utah, 3,240; 181 hospitalized; 26 deaths.
  • Weber-Morgan, 2,878; 185 hospitalized; 25 deaths.
  • Bear River (Box Elder, Cache, Rich), 2,335; 108 hospitalized; 7 deaths.
  • Summit County, 714; 53 hospitalized; 1 death.
  • San Juan County, 653; 85 hospitalized; 25 deaths.
  • Tooele County, 584; 30 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • Wasatch County, 576; 22 hospitalized; 4 deaths.
  • Central Utah, 430; 25 hospitalized; 2 deaths.
  • TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 181; 14 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • Southeast Utah, 115; 7 hospitalized; 1 death.

Contributing: Annie Knox