KSL Investigates: State COVID-19 contracts exceed $67 million

May 6, 2020, 11:08 PM | Updated: Feb 7, 2023, 3:23 pm

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — The “Healthy Together” app and TestUtah.com were developed for the state of Utah to help track the spread of COVID-19, as well as protect Utahns and businesses from the spread of the virus.

This week, more details about the contracts related to the development of these tools are drawing criticism from lawmakers.

‘Healthy Together’ App

“We have essentially a social media app developer, of Twenty [Labs] that has developed a health app,” said Rep. Andrew Stoddard, D-Midvale.

Stoddard had concerns about the contract process around tech company Twenty Labs, LLC., which developed the “Healthy Together” app. The New York-based business secured this contract to help contact tracing of COVID-19 in Utah.

The Utah “Healthy Together” app.

The contract outlined a one-time payment from the state for $2.75 million for the app development, followed by $300,000 per month for up to one million users for “monthly maintenance and support.” After that, it will cost an extra $0.30 per user.

“So, over the life of the contract for a year, it’s going to be over $6 million,” said Stoddard. “I have the app. It seems like a great tool to have in the toolbox. I don’t think it’s worth $6 million.”

The contract has a term of five years. As far as Stoddard can tell, however, the state won’t own the app.

“I would have rather taken than that $6 million and just hired more in-person contact tracers,” he said. “Because that’s the way it’s been done. That’s how it’s been shown to be effective.”

Regardless of those concerns, state officials were moving forward with the app’s development.

During Wednesday’s COVID-19 press conference, Utah’s state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said, “We’re actually working with the app developer today to develop a public health portal where our case investigators will be able to see the [historical] location of positive individuals if they allow investigators to do so.”

The KSL Investigators reached out to the governor’s office for comment concerning this contract, and in a statement were told, “We believe the value of the app in augmenting our public health officials’ efforts will prove itself over time. Contextually, Twenty Labs invested about $20 million in developing the technology that is now the base of ‘Healthy Together.’”

Enough Due Diligence?

The Utah COVID-19 Task Force has received criticism the last couple of weeks for public-private partnerships, including questions about the $800,000 purchase of an anti-malaria drug from vendor Meds in Motion. That money was ultimately refunded to the state.

Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper, said she was against the purchase of hydroxychloroquine from the beginning with concerns over transparency and lack of due diligence.

“I had concerns early on that many people were pushing hydroxychloroquine,” she said. “Is this a good use of taxpayer dollars? And is this the proper role of government?”

The Twenty Labs contract is one of five state contracts the KSL Investigators obtained through a state open records request, all focused on helping Utah track and navigate the spread of COVID-19.

Those five contracts were awarded to four companies, costing the state $67,265,300 over the next year.

“There’s no reason [the state] couldn’t have opened this up [for bids],” said Stoddard.

Because Utah is in a state of emergency with the pandemic, the State’s Division of Purchasing and General Services said on its website, “Through May 31, 2020, procurements for goods and services directly related to the State’s response to the coronavirus are excepted from competitive solicitation requirements. Agencies are encouraged to use as much competition as is practicable.”

How That $67 Million Is Spent

Three vendors were involved in the other four contracts the KSL Investigators examined.

Orem-based Nomi Health was awarded $2 million to run the TestUtah.com website. This contract terminates May 20, unless the state chooses to renew.

Nomi Health was also operating five mobile COVID-19 test sites as part of the private-public partnership with Silicon Slopes. In this separate contract, the state awarded the company $3 million for the testing sites and an additional $600,000 per month, per site, to operate.

This contract also expires on May 20 but may be renewed by the state. The KSL Investigators took into consideration a full year of testing for this contract in our total calculations.

Qualtrics also has a contract connected to the TestUtah.com website. The governor’s office told KSL that Qualtrics is an existing vendor and therefore was able to negotiate a discounted rate in light of the pandemic. Their original contract was part of a public bid process, and then amended with the COVID-19 outbreak to include technology for the TestUtah.com assessment. Over the next year, the state will pay $1.8 million to the company for software and services.

DOMO, a cloud company in American Fork, signed a $2 million deal at the end of March to create and run the state’s COVID-19 tracking dashboard. This stores data valuable to agencies like Utah Department of Health, COVID-19 Task Force, and the Division of Emergency Management. It tracks everything from COVID-19 hospitalizations to supply needs.

The University of Utah’s Davis Eccles School of Business received a contract focused on field testing random samples to better get an idea of which populations are affected by coronavirus and how they might best fight the disease based on these demographics.

The contract includes a two-phase plan. Phase one lasts one month and focuses on comprehensive testing in Salt Lake, Davis, Summit, and Utah counties to gather information like demographics, symptoms, access to health care and compliance with social distancing. This costs the state $2,778,500.

Phase two is a statewide mobile testing plan to incorporate what is learned in Phase one. This operates on a continual, rolling basis at a cost of $1,111,400 per month. The contract expires April 21, 2021, unless the state terminates it early or decides to extend it.

Still, lawmakers were concerned with the lack of transparency in these deals.

“What’s concerning to me is that these deals have happened behind closed doors and then we’re just funding the bill for them,” said Stoddard.

“I have questions about many of these contracts that have been handed out in a no-bid process during this crisis,” said Harrison.

Utah Governor Defends COVID-19 Contracts

After our KSL Investigation revealed the state of Utah is spending as much as $67 million over the next year in state contracts for coronavirus response, Herbert defended the state’s decisions Thursday and promised to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars.

“I stand by the collective decisions made by our state leaders,” Herbert said, adding that Utah has done its own internal review and he believed everyone the state has dealt with has acted in good faith. “Has there been unanimity in all the decisions that we’ve made by our Utah leaders? The answer is no. There have been principled and sincere, I think, differences of opinion, but they are opinions and I understand that. We had to work on the best information we had.”

When KSL Investigator Brittany Glas asked the governor how private companies like Twenty Labs have been chosen for these multimillion-dollar contracts, Herbert said, “Some of this has been people stepping up and saying we’ve got an idea. We are inundated by people that say, ‘We’ve got the solution.’ It may be a new drug, a new opportunity here, a new process, which we have to sort through.”

When asked how he responds to critics who believe action has been taken behind closed doors that shouldn’t have, Herbert continued, “The situation itself necessitates quick action and we’ve done that and we’ve done everything very responsibly. And again, if somebody stepped outside their lane and (does) something inappropriate, we’ll discover that and that will be held accountable.”

Herbert also said Thursday he believed the state’s “furiously-paced decision making has steadied.”

Herbert said Utah can begin to reflect and evaluate how the state took action against COVID-19 and learn from the experience.

The governor also announced the state’s unified command center, led by Commissioner of Public Safety Jess Anderson, will now have operational authority over state operations related to the pandemic, including contracting.

“Now, thankfully that the pace of purchases has calmed down, I’ve asked the unified command to use a more normal purchasing process, even though we still remain in a state of emergency. We don’t have quite the time-sensitive issues that we’ve had in the past as we now move into stabilization,” Herbert added.

Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at investigates@ksl.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.

KSL Investigators Previous Coverage

KSL Investigates: Violating COVID-19 Quarantine Orders Could Get You Six Months In Jail

KSL Investigates Utah’s Ability To Handle Coronavirus Outbreak

Utah’s COVID-19 Capacity By The Numbers 

KSL Investigates: Exclusive Interview With Utah’s Coronavirus Task Force Chief 

KSL Investigates: Will The Hope Of A COVID-19 Vaccine Be Derailed By Mistrust?

KSLTV.com Compilation Of Coronavirus Stories

Coronavirus Resources

How Do I Prevent It?

The CDC has some simple recommendations, most of which are the same for preventing other respiratory illnesses or the flu:

  • Avoid close contact with people who may be sick
  • Avoid touching your face
  • Stay home when you are sick
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue and then throw the tissue in the trash
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating, and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing. Always wash your hands with soap and water if your hands are visibly dirty.
  • If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
The CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.

How To Get Help

If you’re worried you may have COVID-19, you can contact the Utah Coronavirus Information Line at 1-800-456-7707 to speak to trained healthcare professionals. You can also use telehealth services through your healthcare providers.

Additional Resources

If you see evidence of PRICE GOUGING, the Utah Attorney General’s Office wants you to report it. Common items in question include toilet paper, water, hand sanitizer, certain household cleaners, and even cold medicine and baby formula. Authorities are asking anyone who sees price gouging to report it to the Utah Division of Consumer Protection at 801-530-6601 or 800-721-7233. The division can also be reached by email at consumerprotection@utah.gov.

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KSL Investigates: State COVID-19 contracts exceed $67 million