Summit County is seeking random testing to set benchmark levels of COVID-19 in the community |

Summit County is seeking random testing to set benchmark levels of COVID-19 in the community

Summit County officials reported an average of 45 people per day received a COVID-19 test during a one-week span earlier this month, a number they say is not enough. Health officials are pursuing a strategy of randomized, ongoing testing in the community to determine a benchmark of the prevalence of COVID-19 with the hope that increases to that number would serve as a warning of a spike in cases before patients arrive in emergency rooms.
Tanzi Propst/Park Record

Summit County officials Monday said that “unless something crazy happens,” it is likely the county will follow the rest of the state into a reduced level of restrictions at the end of the week.

But the county’s top public health official warned the disease remains active in the community and that he would seek a new testing strategy to ensure officials learn about any potential surge in new cases before patients arrive in emergency rooms.

The county is averaging about two new cases per day, Summit County Health Director Rich Bullough said. As of Monday, there were 401 cases in Summit County, with 36 hospitalizations and no deaths, according to the state Department of Health.

New case numbers have dropped dramatically during the two-month push to slow the spread of the pandemic through social distancing measures and business closures. But officials have said the incubation period of COVID-19 means there is a lag time between a possible surge in new cases and when that uptick is reflected in testing data. And Bullough said the number of tests being done in Summit County isn’t adequate.

“(T)hat leaves Summit County in some ways kind of in a hole where we’re not getting the data that we need right now,” Health Director Rich Bullough on lack of state capacity to test asymptomatic people for COVID-19

People aren’t feeling sick enough to seek a test, Bullough said, which is a sign of success. But there aren’t enough tests available to support widespread testing of people who don’t have symptoms of COVID-19, meaning few people are being tested in Summit County.

“Week of (May 8-14), averaging somewhere in the ballpark, it looks like maybe 45 tests/day. That’s not enough — we’ve got a population of 40,000 here,” Bullough said. “To me that just says that we need to have more of a baseline, randomized testing structure so that we can begin to predict some upticks before they actually show up in the clinical facilities.”

Bullough said the county received approval from the state last week to pursue ongoing randomized testing of county residents. The hope is that random asymptomatic testing would establish a baseline of how prevalent the disease is in the community. If officials see an uptick in cases in the random sample, they would know about a potential surge before people infected with COVID-19 sought treatment at a medical facility. Bullough said such a program would hopefully include Wasatch County residents, as well.

Bullough said asymptomatic testing isn’t available because the state is conserving its tests to use on high-risk populations, a decision he said was the correct one.

“But that leaves Summit County in some ways kind of in a hole where we’re not getting the data that we need right now,” he said.

Bullough also said the area’s hospitals retain capacity in their intensive-care units, and that the county’s latest “R-naught” number was 0.33. That means that one person infected with COVID-19 is now infecting only 0.33 other people; numbers under 1 indicate the growth in new cases is declining.

“It’s really encouraging,” Bullough said.

The health director was joined by Summit County Councilor Roger Armstrong and County Manager Tom Fisher in a live-streamed question-and-answer session Monday.

After Gov. Gary Herbert last week granted Summit County an exemption to maintain stricter protocols than other parts of the state to fight COVID-19, Armstrong and Fisher said they heard from citizens who were concerned the county would seek to maintain those measures for an extended period of time.

On Saturday, the county was one of a handful of cities and counties around the state to remain in the orange, moderate-risk stage of the governor’s pandemic response plan, while much of the rest of the state moved to the yellow, low-risk stage.

“To be really clear, this is a one-week extension that the Governor’s Office gave us,” Armstrong said. “Based on the numbers … I suspect it’s going to be a hard argument to make — unless something crazy happens during the rest of the week — to keep us in orange at the end of this week.”

Armstrong said the county sought the exemption to gather more data about the effects of reopening the economy on the spread of the disease.

“Due to the unique nature of Summit County as a tourist destination and … given the relatively high risk of certain kinds of businesses that are closely linked to tourism, such as restaurants and lodging, we wanted to have at least another week to take a look at the data and measure what happened as we went from red to orange before determining whether we regard it as safe for residents of Summit County to further reduce down to a yellow phase,” Armstrong said.

The live-streamed question-and-answer events are scheduled on Monday afternoons and can be found on Summit County’s Facebook page.

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