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SALT LAKE CITY — With Utah's COVID-19 cases hitting record highs due to the rapidly spreading omicron variant, lines to get tested for the virus are so long that free home test kits are being offered as an alternative — even though the results won't be counted.
"It is a resource that's available to people if they would prefer to take home a home test versus waiting," said Jenny Olson, spokeswoman for Orem-based Nomi Health, hired to operate many of the Utah Department of Health's COVID-19 testing sites.
However, she stopped short of encouraging Utahns to go to a testing site just to get a hard-to-find home test kit, acknowledging the option is a "resource and it's backup, but I'd hate to inundate the sites with more demand."
The kits are part of an effort to minimize the anxiety surrounding testing, Olson said.
"They're doing their best to get through that entire line, to keep everybody very informed," she said. "There's a lot of emotions around wanting to get tested. If you're waiting and waiting and no one's communicating with you, it makes it more difficult."
Although there are reports of lines lasting hours at some sites along the Wasatch Front, Olson said the average wait time is 45 minutes. The fastest location is in Tooele, she said, with an average wait time of around 10 minutes.
Omicron putting testing sites at capacity
The state's nearly 60 testing sites that are conducting about 35% to 40% of all of the tests reported in Utah are "the capacity we've got right now," state health department spokesman Tom Hudachko said.
He said only a handful of the testing sites are experiencing wait times between one and three hours while the "vast majority" are able to provide testing for the coronavirus in 30 minutes or less.
The busiest are in Herriman, Draper, Holladay, Provo, Bountiful, Logan and in Salt Lake City, at the Utah State Fairpark and in the Cannon Health Building, near the Salt Lake City International Airport, Hudachko said.
The push for testing comes as Utah continues to see case counts as high as they were during the worst of the pandemic last winter. On Tuesday, the state health department reported 4,661 new cases and seven additional deaths from the virus.
Utah COVID-19 cases likely undercounted
But the daily case count, just under the record of 4,706 set on Dec. 30, 2020, is "probably a huge underestimate," said Han Kim, a professor of public health at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, in part because the number doesn't include positive home testing results.
Unlike COVID-19 tests done at a state site, or at a local clinic, doctor's office or pharmacy, the results of home testing for the virus are not required to be reported to public health authorities as they are in some other countries, like the United Kingdom.
Kim said there are issues with the sensitivity of home tests, long hard to find on store shelves or online even before the extremely transmissible omicron variant showed up in Utah shortly after being first identified in South Africa around Thanksgiving.
Especially with the omicron variant, there is a greater chance of a false negative with a rapid antigen home test, Kim said. Still, he said, people need easy access to finding out if they're infected with COVID-19 in order to slow its spread.
Hudachko said Utah currently is receiving about 8,000 home test kits weekly from the federal government and about 3,000 were handed out at testing sites over the past week "to alleviate demand."
We just dropped the ball.
–Han Kim, professor of public health at Westminster College
The state is also sending the free home test kits to Utahns who are homebound or who live in remote locations not served by testing sites, Hudachko said, and so far, there's been enough to meet those requests.
More are likely coming to Utah as production ramps up following President Joe Biden's announced goal of offering 500 million free kits to Americans by March, up from 200 million available in December.
But Kim said accurate case counts are also key to dealing with the pandemic.
"We just dropped the ball," Kim said, by not collecting home test results. "Something as infectious as omicron, that doubles every few days, it's pretty important to know to what degree the disease is spreading."
Dr. Angela Dunn, executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department, said Utah's case counts are "absolutely" higher than reported. She urged anyone exposed to the virus or experiencing symptoms who tests negative with a home test to head to a testing site.
There, they can receive what the former state epidemiologist called the "gold standard" of COVID-19 tests, the PCR or polymerase chain reaction test that can be processed usually within 24 hours.
Do home test results need to be counted?
Dunn said she's not worried about home test results not being included in the state's case counts.
"It doesn't concern me from a public health standpoint at all. I think the more access to testing, the better," she said, adding that there are other mechanisms to monitor COVID-19, including using information from patients at urgent care facilities and emergency rooms.
So far, Dunn said, that has matched cases "quite well, so we can rely on that to understand how COVID is spreading and where it's spreading throughout our county without having those home tests reported."
Hudachko said as home tests become a more significant part of the coronavirus response, there will be less reliance on case counts. Instead, he said, public health officials will look for trends using hospitalizations and other data.
"We feel really comfortable when we get to that point, we'll have a really good feel for what the disease is doing," he said, noting that's how the flu and other diseases that are endemic rather than pandemic are monitored.
It's not clear when COVID-19, declared a pandemic in March 2020, reaches the point where outbreaks of the virus are limited and confined to some regions rather than a constant presence around the globe.
"We're not doing this tomorrow," Hudachko said. "But at some point, this will happen."