Officials say Summit County’s huge testing surge paints optimistic picture
A huge surge in testing in Summit County — more than doubling in five days the number of tests that had been done to date — has revealed a much lower rate of positive cases of COVID-19 than previously seen, further indicating to health officials that the time to gradually reopen the economy appears to be fast approaching.
Summit County Health Director Rich Bullough said that previously, 20% to 30% of tests were coming back positive for COVID-19, but data from the surge, in which asymptomatic people were also tested, has shown a positive rate closer to 5%. That’s an important figure, Bullough said, one the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has set as a target.
The county had results from 3,495 tests through Tuesday, Bullough said, but that doesn’t include the largest day of mobile testing. On Wednesday, some 1,100 people were tested for COVID-19 at the Ecker Hill park-and-ride lot. In total, the week of testing yielded 2,300 samples across the county, Bullough said.
The final numbers aren’t in, but Bullough said he is confident the percentage of positive cases in the new tests will be closer to 3% than 5%.
“That means that, two things: You’re testing adequately … (and) it isn’t rampant in your community. It’s a manageable level,” he said. “As we’ve been watching this, (it’s) been one of the indicators we’ve been keeping an eye on. It’s an important indicator from the perspective of beginning to ease some restrictions.”
As of Friday, there had been 351 known coronavirus cases in the county, according to the Utah Department of Health, resulting in 31 hospitalizations. In mid-March, Summit County had one of the highest per-capita rates of the disease in the country, but the growth rate of known cases has slowed in recent weeks as officials implemented strict measures to fight the virus.
Bullough said a key goal of the surge, which involved mobile testing sites at various locations around the county, was to test people near hot spots, namely two apartment complexes in Park City and one in Kimball Junction. Everyone living within 2 miles of those sites was encouraged to get tested.
People who do not have symptoms of COVID-19 can still have the disease and spread the virus that causes it. By testing asymptomatic people, officials hope to isolate everyone who has the virus and the people with whom they’ve come into contact.
While asymptomatic people are no longer asked to seek testing, the standards for who can be tested at the Park City Ice Arena have been relaxed. Now, Bullough said, anyone who has at least one symptom will be tested.
Symptoms include fever, cough, shortness of breath, muscle aches and pains, decreased sense of taste and smell, a sore throat or diarrhea, according to Intermountain Healthcare and Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist.
The testing surge was made possible by an influx of testing kits from the Utah Department of Health and was administered by Intermountain Healthcare staff.
It is unclear whether similar testing capacity will be available to measure infections in the county as businesses start to reopen in coming weeks, a crucial component as county health officials weighs whether to continue easing restrictions on businesses or to keep people at home to prevent another surge of the virus. Officials are targeting May 1 for issuing a new public health order that eases some of the restrictions currently in place.
Bullough said that the county’s plan to gradually reopen the economy starting around that date closely resembles Gov. Gary Herbert’s plan, and pointed out that would mean that businesses in Summit County would be opening up just as many others in Utah would as well.
Health officials will likely seek an increased amount of testing to gauge the effects of increased social mixing that come from opening the economy to see if that has led to more spread of the disease.
While another 1,100-test day is unlikely, Bullough said the state’s testing capacity has been improving, estimating it can process 4,000-6,000 tests daily. That’s a notable improvement compared to even three weeks ago, he said.
Bullough added that next fall may prove challenging if it brings a resurgence of the new coronavirus.
“Virtually every model that I’ve looked at suggests a couple of things: One of them is, we are going to have a resurgence; the other is that resurgence may align itself with influenza, the traditional influenza season.”
He said that would present an entirely different burden to the local health care system and that the impacts would likely be significant. The Health Department is already preparing for the fall, he said, working to put plans in place and to make sure equipment levels are sufficient.
The hope is that, with enough data, the department could trace a spike in cases to a specific cause or business sector and not have to react with broad measures that impact the entire economy.
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