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SALT LAKE CITY — Two new free mass testing sites for COVID-19 opened in Utah on Monday, at the University of Utah and Utah Valley University, but the state's policy of urging most Utahns with symptoms to skip testing and just stay home for at least five days will stay the same.
The sites, operated through a federal program recently expanded as part of the Biden administration's efforts to slow the spread of the incredibly transmissible omicron variant of the virus, are each expected to test up to 1,200 people a day.
So far, plenty of appointments are available, said Tom Wiser, a spokesman for eTrueNorth, the federal contractor over some 850 COVID-19 testing locations nationwide, including the two new mass testing sites and some pharmacies in Utah.
The state has been struggling to keep up with the demand for testing during the omicron surge, with Utahns waiting in line for hours at overwhelmed drive-up sites that had resorted to offering at-home test kits to try to ease the crowds until those ran out in mid-January.
That's when Gov. Spencer Cox and other state leaders announced Utahns should no longer get tested for COVID-19 when they show signs of the virus unless they are elderly, medically vulnerable or spending time around others who are in those categories.
Instead, the state wants Utahns suffering from the cold- and flu-like symptoms associated with the virus to assume they've got it and isolate at home for five days. If they feel better and no longer have a fever at that point, they can venture out in a mask for another five days.
Wiser wasn't sure what impact the advice to not get tested would have on the new sites in the state.
"Our mission is to expand COVID testing for all Americans. Anyone who wishes to get a test, we hope that these two sites can provide them opportunity to get tested. And as of today, there's ample appointments," he said. Utahns can register and secure a spot at the sites online, at ineedacovid19test.com.
The no-charge PCR tests are self-administered using a nasal swab, but health care professionals are on hand to observe, according to the contractor. Results can be expected within 48 to 72 hours, and everyone, even children, must set up an individual account with a unique username and password that will be used to retrieve the results.
Utah hit a record of 55,600 tests conducted for the virus the day before the instruction not to test was given, in what was described as a "pivot" in the state's pandemic response. That number has been dropping since, to less than 21,000 last Friday. The results from home test kits are not reported to the state.
Case counts have been headed down in Utah, too. Monday, the Utah Department of Health reported a total of 10,272 new cases in Utah since Friday — 4,801 on Friday, 3,208 on Saturday and 2,324 on Sunday. The record of more than 13,500 cases in a single day, nearly three times last winter's previous high, was set on Jan. 14.
The university campuses in Salt Lake City and Orem were chosen for the new testing sites "based on population size, case count data, percent positivity, wastewater, the need for a higher volume testing location, and willing partners to host the site," state health department spokeswoman Charla Haley said.
Even with more capacity available, she said the state's advice about testing hasn't changed.
"It's a lot more manageable now," Haley said of testing. But the decline in testing means daily case counts are likely not an accurate measure of how prevalent COVID-19 is in Utah, so public health officials are shifting to other sources of data.
Haley said the state is relying more on the testing being done on wastewater throughout the state to monitor the spread of the virus. Still, she said it's not clear whether the omicron surge in Utah has peaked, as it has in some other parts of the country.
"I wish I could say yes," Haley said. "We're just kind of riding the wave to see what happens. There's not really any way to predict exactly what's happening. We've seen declines before that then ended up in surges so it's kind of difficult to even predict where we're going right now. Keeping our fingers crossed."
Nathan LaCross, wastewater surveillance program manager for the state health department, said case counts are "likely to be a pretty severe underestimate of the true number of cases," because "testing resources have just been stretched so thin that people have had to be asked not to show up, which is really unfortunate."
But LaCross said he's "starting to see some nice decrease in trends" from the wastewater samples collected biweekly that are sent to the state lab to be screened for the virus, although levels of the virus detected are still high.
"The data has really shifted a lot in the last week and a half," LaCross said, with samples suggesting the virus is either remaining at stable levels or decreasing, especially along the Wasatch Front. That comes after weeks where the samples showed no signs of the virus nearing a peak.
Still, LaCross cautioned that Utahns still need to protect themselves and others against the virus.
"Hopefully, people don't get the wrong impression. Just like previous waves, you start a downward turn that doesn't mean, hey, everything is great, now we can just ignore all precautions and safety measures we've been taking," he said. "(We've) got to keep doing it to keep it going in this positive direction."
Han Kim, a professor of public health at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, said Utahns are getting mixed messages when it comes to testing. That includes the free home test kits and N95 face masks being distributed by the Biden administration weeks after omicron began sweeping across the United States.
"I'm always a fan of more testing capacity. I'm glad the Biden administration is doing this," Kim said, adding no one was ready for the surge. "So I don't necessarily blame the federal government. I think they're doing the best they can but it's just the situation. It's such a fast-moving disease, it seems like everything we do is a step too late."