Utah is beefing up COVID-19 testing so residents no longer have to wait in line for hours to be swabbed for the virus and is also piloting a new process intended to make it easier to get the results required for travel to many places, Gov. Spencer Cox said Thursday.
The governor also said during the taping of his monthly news conference on PBS Utah that Utah’s Public Employees Health Plan is providing financial incentives of up to $250 for government workers and their families to get vaccinated against the virus, an added push on top of the administrative leave available to get the shots.
His announcements come as he said the state may have seen the worst of the monthslong surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the highly contagious delta variant of the virus.
Cox kicked off the news conference saying he had “some good news. In the last 14 days, our positive tests are down about 20% in the state. There are good indicators we have summited the peak of the delta variant and are starting down the other side.”
He said the drop in case counts is already being followed by hospitalizations starting to come down, and deaths from COVID-19 should follow. That’s “welcome news,” the governor said, especially for health care workers who have been “just slammed” over recent weeks, dealing with intensive care units filled beyond capacity.
The surge has also sparked a spike in COVID-19 testing in the state, overwhelming some sites. After the Labor Day weekend, some Utahns complained they were stuck for hours in long lines at drive-up sites despite scheduling appointments for testing.
Cox said demand for coronavirus testing jumped about tenfold since June 1, to more than 19,000 tests conducted on Sept. 1.
“Quite frankly, we fell short of expectations in meeting that demand,” the governor said.
But he said over the past month, the state has added more than 200 new staffers and 12 additional sites, many with longer hours of operation and open additional days. Appointments have been replaced with walk-up service, Cox said, and now the longest wait reported in the past week was 20 minutes.
A separate lane for travelers seeking tests now needed to enter some states and countries regardless of vaccination status will be set up next week at the Cannon Building, located at 288 N. 1460 West in Salt Lake City, near the Salt Lake City International Airport, he said.
Under the two-week pilot program, different types of tests will be available free of charge to Utahns, the governor said, and available for a charge to travelers who don’t live in the state but need to show a negative test result to return home. Cox said travelers will be responsible for knowing which test they need.
“We’re going to try this out,” the governor said. He said he’s heard some Utahns have had to go as far as Las Vegas in order to get the necessary tests for a trip from a site recognized by their destination at a cost of $100 or $200 per test. If the new program works, other locations may follow, the governor said.
Cox said he does not foresee Utah requiring a negative test to enter the state.
The financial incentives planned by PEHP, a state employee insurance plan, include $100 for a worker or family member age 12-49 and $250 for those 50 and older to get vaccinated against the virus, as well as $50 for those who get a booster shot, now available only to those 65 or older or who have certain medical conditions.
The price tag for the insurer’s program is about $3.9 million, the governor said, money that will come from the company’s reserves and is expected to be made up in savings on hospitalization costs. Cox said he’s been told of COVID-19 patients racking up bills of $500,000 to $1 million or more for stays in intensive care units.
“If nothing else, there’s a huge financial incentive to get vaccinated,” the governor said. He also said unvaccinated Utahns should not rely on monoclonal antibody treatments, which, at $2,100, are about a hundred times more expensive than a dose of vaccine, to protect them from getting ill with COVID-19
There’s been “lots of hand-wringing and for good reason,” he said, over the infusion treatments being seen by some as an alternative for those who don’t want to get the vaccine. The state recently set up a mobile field hospital in Murray to make the treatments, backed by Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, more available.
Adams has also promoted vaccination, saying “prevention is better than a treatment.”