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Audit criticizes Utah COVID-19 testing turnaround times, communication

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Posted at 12:29 PM, Aug 05, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-05 14:31:26-04

SALT LAKE CITY — A new audit released Wednesday criticizes the state for COVID-19 testing, including how long it takes to get results and whether the public knows it.

The review of test turnaround times was conducted by the Office of Legislative Auditor General.

"Timely testing reduces public health risk and has economic benefits. Whether test results are positive or negative, timely sharing of this information is paramount to the public and the individual. State COVID-19 data that we analyzed does not provide a complete picture of the time it takes to return a test result back to a patient. This limited our ability to provide a complete picture of COVID-19 test turnaround times in the state," the audit said.

The audit also found inconsistencies with how long it takes to get results. For example, state officials have repeatedly said that they can get results in 24 hours. But health care providers have said 72 hours. Legislative auditors also found it varies based on what lab a COVID-19 test is sent to -- anywhere from one to four days.

"While test delays vary from 1.3 days to 3.7 days on average, some labs have had rather lengthy processing times," the audit said. "It is important to note that these delays in test processing times account for only the time from when the patient is swabbed to when the lab sends the results to the provider. Delays could potentially be longer depending on provider backlogs in their efforts to communicate results to patients."

Among its recommendations, the Office of Legislative Auditor General said the governor's office needs to clearly communicate turnaround time from swab to results announced to patients. Health care providers should also coordinate with government to be clear about goals for test turnaround. It also recommended Utah's Department of Health to consider publishing test processing times to the state's website and work with labs to increase test turnaround.

"We believe transparency in test processing times empower patients with information to make the most informed decisions about their health and economic situation," the audit said.

In formal responses submitted to the legislature, the Governor's Office of Management and Budget said it agreed with the recommendations. So did the state health department.

"The time from when a sample is collected, test results are provided, contact tracing performed, and appropriate quarantine put into place currently takes 6.5 days on average. Ideally, the process end to end would take 72 hours to reduce secondary spread. While this may not be possible in all cases, the state is setting targets in areas that impact high-risk and superspreader environments," GOMB Executive Director Kristen Cox wrote.

Utah's Department of Health would work to implement the recommendations by the end of this month, said Rich Saunders, the agency's interim director.

In an interview with FOX 13 on Tuesday, Lt. Governor Spencer Cox said the state health lab had cleared a backlog and could turn around COVID-19 test results in 24 hours.
Read the audit here.