As drive-through testing opens near Park City Hospital, officials say testing shortage is blunting their response to the coronavirus
Intermountain Healthcare set up the first drive-through COVID-19 testing site in Summit County this week, with operations starting near Park City Hospital Thursday morning.
The Quinn’s Junction location is one of 16 such sites the health care system has set up in an effort to bolster testing capabilities, something officials have said is one of the limiting factors in effectively fighting the coronavirus pandemic. Officials made clear that only those who are approved for a test can use the drive-through facility and that everyone else will be turned away. Those who are concerned about their symptoms should call a COVID-19 hotline.
State Epidemiologist Angela Dunn said in a Thursday press conference that 1,526 people in the state had been tested for the novel coronavirus to date, a figure she said was likely lower than the actual total. Utah’s population is estimated to be more than 3.2 million people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In an interview posted online Tuesday, Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, Intermountain Healthcare medical director of infectious disease, said testing was a limited resource that health care professionals had to prioritize carefully.
“We can’t test everybody that wants testing at this point,” Stenehjem said. “We clearly don’t have the testing capabilities to test all the asymptomatic folks to see who’s positive and who’s not.”
He said the highest priority group are those who are critically ill and health care workers so that clinicians can marshal resources to those who need it most and protect the health care system.
Stenehjem added that the lack of testing makes measures like social distancing even more important, because there is most likely a period before people exhibit symptoms that they’re shedding virus molecules.
“Even if we have people shedding virus completely asymptomatic, if they are limiting their exposure to other people, not going out in the community, they’re stopping the spread of this virus,” he said. “We all have a role to play in this and this social distancing is critical to it.”
Stenehjem and Dunn said that a lack of materials like personal protective equipment and chemicals required for tests were factors limiting testing.
Stenehjem said that Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox had convened a task force to study the medical supply chain in an effort to support the system where it was struggling.
“Until those supply chains come online and we have access to everything for testing — the reagents, the swabs, everything we need — not until then will we see large volume testing in Utah,” Stenehjem said.
Dunn said that testing is essential for fighting the outbreak and that efforts were ramping up. But without the data that increased testing would supply, officials have had to implement sweeping restrictions.
“Without that widespread knowledge (which would be gained through testing), we have to implement public health interventions on a larger scale such as mass gathering restrictions,” Dunn said. “That’s what we’re doing now is implementing these school closures, mass gathering restrictions statewide in order to ensure that those who might have mild symptoms and aren’t tested for COVID-19 aren’t able to spread it to others.”
Private labs like LabCorp, which has a national reach and extensive facilities in Salt Lake City, have ramped up testing capabilities. On March 9, a LabCorp spokesperson said they were expecting to be able to test “several thousand” samples per day. On Thursday, the company reported the capability to test 20,000 samples per day from around the nation.
ARUP Laboratories, which evolved out of the University of Utah and continues to conduct that health care group’s lab testing, declined to give figures about how many tests it is conducting, though a spokesperson said employees are working “around the clock” and are delivering results in days rather than hours.
Though the lack of testing is improving, the shortfall is limiting the effectiveness of governments and health care providers to the pandemic, officials say.
“We don’t have the volume of tests to do asymptomatic screening, or even young people with mild symptoms,” Stenehjem said. “(To) those people, we’re going to say stay home, don’t come out, self isolate.”
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