HERRIMAN, Utah — Campbell wonders if those COVID-19 test samples she took on a snowy day in Monticello turned out to be accurate.
“It was so cold inside the cab where the tests were,” Campbell said. “There is a possibility, none of those [tests] were accurate.”
Campbell says she worked at Nomi Health’s TestUtah sites from February 2021 to January of this year, swabbing people, running tests and telling patients whether they had COVID-19.
She’s hasn’t been the only person worried about temperatures and other protocols at TestUtah. A March report from the Centers For Medicare & Medicaid Services explains how staff on multiple occasions failed to keep samples and equipment properly maintained.
A Nomi representative shared with FOX 13 a letter the company received Friday saying the company took corrective action and is now in compliance with CMS standards. But TestUtah officially ended March 31. Nomi now operates a fraction of the testing sites in Utah that it did back in March.
Utah has paid Nomi $78 million for TestUtah, according to figures on the state’s transparency website. Most of that is for testing.
FOX 13's Max Roth and Nate Carlisle discuss the investigative reporting on the TestUtah program below:
Nomi has contracts in other states, too. Data from the Centers Disease Control and Prevention say Nomi has asked the federal government for $334 million for testing the uninsured.
The March inspection report, first obtained by FOX 13’s news sharing partners at The Salt Lake Tribune, said the conditions at TestUtah sites created an “Immediate Jeopardy.” Concern about keeping samples and equipment at the proper temperature came up multiple times in the report.
One testing worker interviewed by FOX 13 News, who asked she not be identified because she still works in health care, and who worked approximately the same time as Campbell, said liquids used to perform tests would sometimes be cold “because we didn't have the proper equipment to store anything.”
The report noted a “lack of training” for staff – something also relayed by the workers interviewed by FOX 13 News.
“So being an employee, almost a whole year, I've done things, 1,000 different ways,” Campbell said.
The other worker said: “I'll be honest, I probably said wrong information that was just passed along, thinking it's the right information.”
She said that included telling patients rapid tests were more reliable than perhaps they really were. In February of this year, the Utah Department of Health told companies operating mobile test sites to temporarily stop using rapid tests due to concerns about accuracy.
Campbell and the other worker worried issues at TestUtah aggravated the accuracy problems.
“They'd run out of gas, and they'd run out of heating elements,” Campbell said. “And we'd have to like warm them up by our hands.”
The CMS report says staff were also using disposable hand warmers to heat up extraction solution.
Campbell, who had no prior health care experience, showed us photos she took from her days at TestUtah. One photo shows the bags holding rapid tests already opened so they can quickly be used on patients. The CMS report found the same thing, but the bags aren’t supposed to be open until samples are ready to be taken.
“Because they’d expect us to get through cars really quickly, we’d pre-open all the tests and put them in a little container and just grab and go, grab and go, right,” Campbell explained. “And little did we know that apparently wasn’t sanitary.”
Nomi was a health software company when the pandemic started. It began COVID testing in 2020.
Gov. Gary Herbert’s office negotiated contracts with Nomi. The first contract was awarded through emergency powers without taking competitive bids.
“They went outside of the customary process, which was to go through the agency responsible for further testing,” said David Sundwall, who directed the Utah Department of Health from 2005 to 2011.
He says Utah should have turned to established testing companies, some of which already operated in the state.
“And I think that was shameful,” Sundwall said of awarding contracts to Nomi. “It was, in my opinion, misspent state dollars.”
Herbert, who left office at the end of 2020, has said communication between the Department of Health and procurement offices could have been better but has also said decisions had to be made quickly to control the pandemic.
Bids were accepted for the current contract Nomi won and still operates under.
The CMS inspectors cited one other thing that rapid test manufactures warned could give false results. The tests have to be read 15 to 20 minutes after solution is applied, but staff weren’t always reading in that time frame.
“If there were negative tests, that could be a serious problem for people who had COVID and didn't know it,” said Sundwall.
FOX 13 News requested an interview with Nomi executives or spokespeople. We were referred to an interview company Chief Operating Officer Josh Walker conducted with FOX 13 News back in March.
“We have really strict standard operating procedures that we ask and we train our teams and we train our teams regularly to follow,” Walker said.
He added: “Your viewers should feel rest assured that the sites being operated were being done really well with seasoned professionals in the health care industry.”
The worker still in the health care industry said of working at TestUtah: “It's like you kind of get thrown into it blind. And you're following other blind people.”
FOX 13 News asked the workers what level of confidence they had in tests from TestUtah with one being no confidence and 10 being total confidence. Both workers said the PCR tests are reliable.
As for the rapid tests?
“Probably like a three, honestly, for rapid tests,” Campbell said.
“I would give the rapid test a three,” the other worker said.
Utah’s contract with Nomi runs to July 2025. If COVID-19 surges again and the state wants to reboot TestUtah, the base cost is $75,000 per testing site per month plus $8 for each test, according to the contract.