State health lab in Taylorsville playing critical role in tracking Utah coronavirus numbers
Jul 08, 2020 03:34PM
By Carl Fauver
The Utah Public Health Laboratory in Taylorsville has been testing more than 1,100 coronavirus patient samples each day for months. (Carl Fauver/City Journals)
By Carl Fauver | [email protected]
During our seemingly endless coronavirus quarantine over the past 3 1/2 months, many people have described it as “boring.” But at one busy site in Taylorsville, 20 haggard employees only wish they had a moment to be bored.
The Utah Public Health Laboratory (4431 South 2700 West) is one of only four primary labs in the state, determining whether each patient sample they receive is positive or negative for COVID-19. As of June 15, the number of positive diagnoses in Utah was 13,577. But only about 5% of the samples screened are found to be positive, meaning well over a quarter-million tests had been conducted in the state by that date.
Nancy Arbon has worked at the Utah Public Health Lab nearly a decade and has been the agency’s customer relations manager since 2012.
“The first day we began keeping records of our number of COVID-19 tests completed at the lab was March 16, when we conducted 79 of them,” Arbon said. “Since that time, we have had to increase our hours in order to conduct more tests. Our capacity now is 1,116 tests per day. We have reached that capacity on many, many days.”
That’s tens of thousands of coronavirus test results the local lab produced in fewer than 100 days. The other major Utah labs doing similar high-volume numbers are in Salt Lake, Murray and Orem.
“We have 12 microbiologists and three interns working in the [coronavirus portion of the] state testing lab,” Arbon said. “They are working 10-hour days, frequently seven days a week. Others are 60 hours and six days per week. It has been crazy. My best guess is, the lab is 10-times busier than it was before the virus arrived.”
UPHL officials say no employees have quit due to stress or fatigue. But Arbon believes that could be coming.
As the UPHL Wellness Council Chairperson, Arbon recently shared stories of her overworked staff with her Public Employee Health Plan Wellness Specialist Leanne Geigle.
“Nancy called to suggest perhaps PEHP could provide a donated lunch to their 20-person coronavirus testing staff, which I thought was a wonderful idea,” Geigle said. “Honestly, it had not even been on my radar to help state labs until she called, saying something like that would boost morale. Since there are limits to government spending, I knew I would need to call around to see if I could find a store to donate, or at least discount, 20 meals.”
Geigle began making calls, with one of her first to longtime friend Marlene Woolley, whose son and daughter-in-law had worked for the Great Harvest Bread Co. Bakery & Cafe in Taylorsville (6357 South Redwood Road), years ago. Marlene told Nancy that store would probably help out. She also wanted to be involved in delivering the meals to the lab employees, despite her personal virus challenge.
“My husband, Bradley, recently underwent heart transplant surgery and later tested positive for coronavirus,” Woolley said. “He’s hospitalized on a ventilator, and I am not allowed to visit him. Getting involved in [making this meal donation] was really the first time I have felt empowered to do anything since he returned to the hospital.”
Marlene agreed to make a couple of posters to show support for the UPHL, while also pointing Geigle in the direction of the final hero in the story: Taylorsville Great Harvest Owner JoEllen Kunz.
“We have been donating hundreds of loaves of bread to places of need since the pandemic began, but this was one of the first times we were approached about providing lunches,” Kunz said. “I agreed to put together 20 lunches, featuring sandwiches, chips, cookies and drinks. I would have been happy to donate the entire meal. But they wanted to chip in also.”
Kunz and her husband opened their Great Harvest store, at a different location, in 1995. And while many other businesses have had to shut down during the quarantine period, her store has been nearly as busy as ever.
“We are not doing any catering now, but our bread sales have gone up, and we are doing more curbside business,” Kunz added. “We are definitely a mom-and-pop shop. I have five full- and eight part-time employees. I adore these people and am grateful I have not had to let any of them go or reduce their hours. Our sales are down about 10%, but my husband and I are covering that.”
When the 20 Great Harvest meals arrived at the Utah Public Health Lab, the overworked coronavirus testers enjoyed their lunch picnic-style, outside the building they’ve come to know so well over the past three months.
“Our employees are science types—very humble, not very loud, not overly social—but they were so excited to receive the lunches,” Arbon said. “I want to thank Great Harvest for treating us to lunch. This time has been so hard on our employees. That gesture brought a little sunshine into their lives.”