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SALT LAKE CITY — With Utah's already record-breaking daily COVID-19 case counts roaring past the 10,000 mark Wednesday and people continue to wait in line for hours at free state testing sites, the Utah Department of Health opened its first self-serve testing kiosk in St. George, and more are coming.
"We will expand to other locations. Cedar City will most likely be next, but we do not have an estimated opening at this point," state health department spokesman Tom Hudachko said, nor any details about plans for self-serve testing sites along the Wasatch Front.
The kiosk on the Dixie State University campus that Soft Cell Laboratories has been contracted to run for the state is similar to the dozens of self-serve sites already set up throughout the state by Intermountain Healthcare, the region's largest health care provider, for its patients.
The self-service model allows someone who thinks they've caught COVID-19 to sign up online to pick up a sample vial and then fill it with saliva, used to conduct a PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, test that's considered more accurate than the rapid antigen tests available in home testing kits.
The state health department advises anyone testing negative with an at-home COVID-19 test who has symptoms should get a PCR test because the result could be a false negative, something seen more often with the incredibly transmissible omicron variant fueling the current outbreak.
Lisa Justesen, Soft Cell's COO, said the state's new kiosk, open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Mondays through Fridays, has staff on hand to answer questions and help anyone not able to register online in advance, as well as administer nasal swab tests to children and others who can't produce enough saliva.
Lines should be limited there, she said, compared to the state's jammed drive-through sites.
"This is the great part. Especially when you're collecting saliva, it takes you a few minutes to produce that sample," Justesen said. At the kiosk, people are handed a kit and then park nearby and produce the needed amount of saliva, drop it off and leave. Results can be expected within 36 hours and arrive via email.
"You don't have a person working at the collection site waiting on you and holding that line of cars up," she said. "You can have 15 people getting collected all at the same time. It's almost like having 15 lines but they're actually in a parking lot. And as soon as there's another space available, somebody else can park. It's much faster."
Self-service testing sites for COVID-19, also available to faculty and students on the University of Utah campus and being looked at for all U. Health patients, may become widespread since omicron is expected to continue to drive up cases for weeks if not months.
"I believe self-serve sites are the way to go in order to do the mass testing that's needed," Justesen said.
Michael Bronson, U. Health senior director for community clinics, said the health care system is "very, very close" to providing self-service COVID-19 testing for patients who have symptoms or who have been in close contact with someone already sick.
He said offering self-service means clinical staff won't have to be pulled from other duties to conduct coronavirus tests. Last week, U. Health officials said hundreds of employees have called in sick with the virus and some are even walking off the job because of the overwhelming number of patients seeking hospital care.
Like it or not, Bronson said Utahns are already used to self-service.
"You check yourself out at the grocery store. You check yourself in at the airport," he said. "The COVID test is pretty straightforward, especially the saliva collection, so this is a self-service model to allow us to expand capacity a little bit."
Utah's latest COVID-19 numbers
The same day the new self-serve testing kiosk opened, the state health department reported a record-breaking 10,220 new cases since Tuesday, and 14 additional deaths from the virus. This is the first time daily case counts have hit the 10,000 mark in Utah.
Before omicron sent cases skyrocketing, the previous record for new cases in a single day was just under 5,000, set during the worst of the pandemic last winter. Now, the rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 8,975 per day.
The rolling seven-day average for percent positivity of tests is 35.5% when all results are included, and 24.4% when multiple tests by an individual are excluded. Since Tuesday, 25,170 people have been tested and 48,561 tests conducted for the virus in Utah. Home testing results, however, are not reported to the state.