Coronavirus will hit Utah, state officials say, and here’s how they are preparing for it

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Epidemiologist Angela Dunn talks about what the state is doing in case of a coronavirus outbreak in Utah during a new conference at the State Capitol on Monday, March 3, 2020. Behind her are Governor Gary Herbert, Senate President Stuart Adams and Speaker of the House Brad Wilson.

In the basement of the state’s Capitol, large screens displayed a world map with a smattering of red dots to pinpoint where COVID-19 has spread so far.

National news stations played on screens in the Emergency Operations Center. There were fewer handshakes exchanged than normal and the smell of hand sanitizer hung in the air.

The coronavirus outbreak hasn’t hit Utah yet — but Gov. Gary Herbert said Monday that this group is preparing for when it does.

“We are hoping for the very best outcome,” he said, “but we’re preparing for the worst, just in case.”

State Epidemiologist Angela Dunn said Monday that the Utah Department of Health has tested 17 people for COVID-19. Fifteen have come back negative, and two are still pending. The deadliest outbreak of the virus in the U.S. has been in Washington state, where six patients had died as of Monday afternoon. More than 3,000 had died worldwide, with nearly 90,000 confirmed cases.

A St. George man was transferred to Intermountain Medical Center for care after testing positive for coronavirus while in quarantine in California following an outbreak on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan. Mark Jorgenson was placed in an isolation unit at the Murray hospital last week, though he was showing no symptoms of illness; his wife, Jerri, tested positive earlier and has been under quarantine in Japan.

But Dunn said it is just a matter of time before the virus spreads here.

“We can definitely expect community spread of COVID-19 in Utah,” she said. “This is happening in other states surrounding us, and that’s what we’re preparing for.”

Utah’s state health lab now has the capacity to test for coronavirus — but until the virus begins to spread, health officials don’t expect to collect a lot of samples.

“For the general public, we’re at low risk,” said Jenny Johnson, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Health.

As of Monday, health officials planned to ask anyone who tests positive to isolate themselves in their home if they are not suffering symptoms. Patients who test positive and feel ill likely will be admitted to a hospital, Johnson said.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who Herbert asked to coordinate a state task force to address coronavirus, urged Utahns to have a plan for what they would do if the virus affects their businesses or families.

“Every organization, every business, every church, every family needs to talk about their own plan,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be ultra-serious, but what would you do in the situation that there is an infection that you have to be quarantined for 14 days? What would that look like?”

That could mean stocking up on pantry items or prescription medications. It could mean allowing employees to telecommute. Or it could be just having a conversation about who could babysit if a school was shut down.

But Herbert urged people not to panic — and said it is possible to go overboard, noting that bottled water flew off the shelves over the weekend.

“The water supply is going to be OK,” he said. “Just turn on the faucet for most of us, and you’re going to get good water.”

State officials told Utahns to stay home if they feel like they are catching a cold or the flu, and to call a medical provider ahead of time if they want to be tested for COVID-19 so the facility can properly prepare to avoid spreading the virus.

For now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends testing for coronavirus only under certain circumstances:

• If a person has a cough or fever, and has been in close contact with a confirmed coronavirus patient.

• If a person has both a cough and a fever, and traveled to China, Iran, Italy, Japan or South Korea within 14 days of developing symptoms.

• If a person has required hospital care for a fever with acute respiratory illness such as pneumonia — and there is no alternative diagnosis, such as influenza.

[Read more: Complete coverage of the coronavirus]

Should the virus begin to spread within Utah, more patients likely will require testing, Johnson said. With testing materials available in the state, results should take less than 24 hours; previously, the test took about three days, health officials have said.

Dunn said Utah officials have the materials to test about 400 people, and noted the test can be done with no cost to the patient.

State officials will keep Utahns up to date on the virus through a website, coronavirus.utah.gov, and through social media channels. The governor noted that Utah’s Legislature has set money aside for these types of emergencies which can be tapped into, if needed.

Herbert urged Utahns to take basic precautions to keep themselves healthy and lower their risk of getting the virus. That means washing your hands more frequently, shaking other peoples’ hands less and covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze.

The governor also asked people to help each other if the virus begins to spread here.

“There’s no state better prepared than Utah,” he said. “We have a culture of preparedness. We have a culture of caring about your neighbors.”