Report reveals state’s COVID-19 test turnaround times are inconsistent

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – A legislative audit on the state’s COVID-19 turnaround times shows there are no specific guidelines for labs to follow, and the state needs a time frame to complete the COVID-19 tests. 

The audit came about when legislators wanted to know how long does it takes for labs to process Utah’s COVID-19 tests. 

Audit Supervisor Jesse Martinson with the Office of the Legislative Auditor General tells us, “We do feel that you know the two big issues are public health and almost, economic liabilities that could occur if those results are not turned around in a timely manner.”

Four investigators used data from the Utah Department of Health and found two common scenarios kept playing out. 

“In some cases, they were defining that, the time between a patient getting swabbed until the lab turns out the result,” said Martinson. “And in some cases, it could have been the time the patient was being swabbed, to when the provider contacts the patient.”

Investigators identified one process involving the tests. 

Diagram in State Audit Report No: ILR 2020-F

The patient gets swabbed, the test is sent to the lab, the lab sends the results to the provider, and then the results are given to the patent.  

“I think overall we found that an average time, overall, was below two days,” he said. “We just found incidences where it did take a number of days to get those results.”

ABC4 News Investigator Jason Nguyen asked if that was problematic for Utahns. 

Martinson said, “That is a good question and absolutely.” 

The audit states the health department should post the processing times by lab and geographic location. 

“They have that data, they can do that pretty quickly,” he adds.

In response, the Utah Department of Health states it “will work with the Legislature to determine what elements of this reporting would be most helpful to be publicly posted.” 

In total the auditors have five recommendations: 

  1. We recommend the Governor’s Office, in collaboration with the Department of Health, formally establish a goal for both COVID-19 test processing times and complete turnaround times.
  2. We recommend the Department of Health officially convene a commission to determine the feasibility of collecting and publishing complete turnaround times, time from swab to patient notification of COVID-19 test results.
  3. We recommend the Department of Health study the feasibility of publicly posting test processing times by lab and geographic location on the website.
  4. We recommend the Department of Health work with labs and providers to share best practices that could result in greater efficiencies to reduce test turnaround times.
  5. We recommend the Department of Health review the feasibility of creating a system to shift test samples from backlogged labs to labs with greater capacity.

“Because testing cycle times are often the longest part of this process, the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget welcomes the findings and recommendations in this report,” said Executive Director Kristen Cox in response to the audit. “The state is focused on improving cycle times and capacity of its public labs and is seeing results. Because the state does not have direct oversight over other labs, it welcomes sharing best practices across all of the labs to improve processing while also sharing information on new and promising testing modalities.”

Utah Department of Health Interim Executive Director Rich Saunders adds, “We concur with the recommendations in this report and will implement the actions…”

See the full audit and response.

Jason Nguyen
Jason Nguyen is an award-winning reporter and photojournalist who is back with ABC4 News as the lead reporter on Good Morning Utah, bringing over a decade of news experience to the team.
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