A Davis County resident who recently returned to Utah after being on a cruise ship has been diagnosed with coronavirus.
The Department of Health announced Utah’s first case of COVID-19 late Friday, hours after Gov. Gary Herbert declared a state of emergency connected to the virus that’s spreading throughout the United States.
Officials believe the Utahn, who is over 60, was exposed on the Grand Princess cruise ship — the same ship currently quarantined off the coast of California, but on a previous voyage — and has been back in the state for about a week. The person visited a health care provider on Friday after being contacted by the cruise line about their risk. The person saw doctors and had “symptoms consistent with COVID-19 infection.”
Medical staff collected a sample from the patient and the state lab returned a “presumptive positive” result. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will also test the sample to give further confirmation.
“It’s important to recognize this case does not represent community spread of COVID-19 in Utah,” the department said.
The patient was sent home to recover and is under a county-issued isolation order. Officials will track the places that person went after returning to Utah to screen individuals they interacted with for symptoms.
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“Our first priority will be ensuring the patient’s family members and medical providers are monitored for potential symptoms and tested, if necessary,” said Brian Hatch, director of the Davis County Health Department. “We will also work closely with the patient to determine if they may have exposed any other members of the community.”
The state Health Department will assist Davis County in this effort. The state knows other Utahns were on the same cruise ship, but so far are not aware that they have displayed any symptoms. The Grand Princess ship is now docked off the coast of California and 21 people currently onboard have tested positive for COVID-19.
“Even though a person in Utah has developed the illness, the risk to the general public remains low,” said Angela Dunn, Utah state epidemiologist. “However, this case does represent a turning point in our response. Home isolation of confirmed cases who aren’t sick enough to be hospitalized is a proven measure that will help limit the spread of disease.”
Dunn said in a news conference, “As you might imagine this event is filled with uncertainty right now” for the person who has contracted the virus. She said because of this no other information about the person will be released.
Earlier Friday, the governor called the state of emergency a proactive move, since no one at that time had been diagnosed. After the announcement of Utah’s first case, the governor wished the patient well and said that “we anticipate recovery.”
“We will certainly see additional cases in the near future," Herbert said in a news release, “and we are prepared to take the necessary steps to protect the public’s health and limit the spread of this illness.”
At the news conference, Herbert acknowledged that Utahns are “probably going to continue to hear things over and over again,” like the importance of hand-washing and covering one’s coughs and sneezes.
He said that repetition is by design, to try and help people remember so as to minimize the virus’s spread. Herbert added that most people who contract the illness will only have mild symptoms — but that itself presents a “unique challenge" because people who don’t feel ill might feel compelled to go to work or school.
Don’t, he said. “If you’re sick, stay home.”
Lt. Governor Spencer Cox, who is leading the state’s preparedness efforts, said Herbert’s emergency declaration “allows our state and communities to access additional funding and resources that will be instrumental in helping us prepare to slow the spread of coronavirus.”
Utah lawmakers are also considering setting aside $16.5 million for the state’s virus response. The governor’s office says the emergency declaration will help Utah tap into $8 billion in federal funding meant for COVID-19 response efforts. The state is working with the federal Department of Health and Human services to determine how much of that funding would come here.
Public anxiety over the illness ratcheted up this week. Utah’s Coronavirus Task Force fielded 277 calls on its informational hotline between Tuesday and Thursday alone, state health officials said.
And questions poured into a University of Utah’s online broadcast Friday led by Tom Miller, medical director of University Hospital. Here’s a sampling of the questions on Utahns’ minds:
"How do people know if they have the normal flu versus coronavirus?"
The symptoms are the same, so a patient has to be tested, Miller said.
"Should people start avoiding social gatherings? Concerts? Sporting events?"
It depends on your comfort with risk. Once the virus begins to spread in Utah, we should expect more events to be canceled, Miller said.
“Can you spread the virus if you’re showing no symptoms?”
Yes, but coughing appears to be the likeliest means of spreading the virus. Patients may spread it by touching their noses, eyes or mouths, and then touching some other object. The virus may survive on surfaces for three to six hours, so consider using sanitary wipes on shared spaces, Miller said.
Residents should brace themselves for disruption, Miller said.
“Social distancing is a way to prevent the spread of this virus as it would be during a flu season, and it’s a good idea. In a state of emergency, you can absolutely expect gatherings to be limited or eliminated altogether.”
One patient had been treated for the virus at Intermountain Medical Center after testing positive elsewhere. He was discharged Friday after developing no symptoms, the Utah Department of Health said in a news release. The patient planned to self-quarantine at his St. George home until two consecutive tests came back negative, health officials said.
The state had materials for 400 tests and was limiting them to patients with symptoms — cough and fever — and a known risk factor, such as travel to an affected area or close contact with a confirmed coronavirus patient.
Nationwide, more than 280 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed, resulting in 15 deaths. Cases have also been diagnosed in states that neighbor Utah, including Arizona, Colorado and Nevada.
In the coming weeks, tests will likely be commercially available through health care providers.
"Within a few weeks we will likely have a lot more tests that a doctor can order, and so the criteria will ease and we'll be able to find out if people have COVID-19," Miller said.
Federal officials have warned that the United States likely will experience a shortage of tests in the near term.
The Veterans Affairs Salt Lake City Health Care System announced Friday that it will screen people “for signs of respiratory illness and exposure to COVID-19” as a “precautionary measure,” something that is happening at VA facilities nationwide.
At a meeting Friday morning, Utah’s Coronavirus Task Force discussed further steps the state could take, including “developing outreach plans to address vulnerable populations,” finding ways to increase testing and “ensuring access to telehealth care for residents statewide,” according to a news release from the governor’s office.
For more information on coronavirus, Utahns may call the state hotline at 800-456-7707 or visit coronavirus.utah.gov.