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Health officials doubt they could significantly increase COVID-19 testing like governor wants

(University of Utah Redwood Clinic, where a lot of their COVID-19 testing is done. Credit: Paul Nelson)

SALT LAKE CITY – Gov. Gary Herbert is calling for a big increase in COVID-19 testing done within the state of Utah. However, some healthcare officials say they have doubts they’d be able to meet the governor’s request with the resources they have now.

During his monthly PBS Utah news conference Thursday, Gov. Herbert announced his goal was to have testing centers across the state conduct 250,000 tests every week. Currently, health care workers administer between 70,000 to 105,000 tests during that time — which is more than 10,000 per day.

To reach the governor’s goal, COVID-19 testing centers and hospitals would have to make significant changes, and some officials are doubtful they’d be able to make them. Utah Department of Health Spokesperson Jenny Johnson said hospitals are already treating an extremely high number of sick people, with several facilities near their full capacity.

“They’re strained,” Johnson said. “They don’t have staff to take care of people in the ICUs and hospitals, which impacts their ability to expand testing.”

Plus, there are questions about whether Utah would be able to get enough testing kits. The US Department of Health and Human Services was able to give Utah more kits when the state was at the beginning of its recent surge, according to Johnson. 

But now that many other states are seeing similar surges, federal and state governments will have to be more strategic in how they distribute the tests.

“We don’t have a never-ending supply of rapid tests,” Johnson said. “They, right now, are controlled by the federal government.”

Workers at University of Utah testing centers perform about 1,500 tests every day.

Would they be able to do more? Dr. Michael Bronson doesn’t want to say that it’s impossible, but it’s hard to see how they would increase their workload.

“We’re pretty much at our capacity at the current staffing levels,” Bronson said.

Despite how busy their testing centers are, Bronson said they don’t want people to be discouraged if they can’t get an appointment, right away. They only schedule two days in advance, and people generally have a good chance to book one earlier in the day.

“If you didn’t get an appointment today and you’re not able to find one elsewhere, just get back on and try again in the morning,” Bronson said. “You’re likely to be able to find an appointment with us.”