Utah coronavirus diagnoses jump again while the sickest get priority for tests

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist from the Utah Department of Health in Salt Lake City, speaks at a news conference on Saturday, March 14, 2020.

The total number of coronavirus cases in Utah jumped from 28 to 39, state health officials announced Monday, with at least one case that’s apparently the result of spread within the community. And later in the day Summit County announced two more positive test results, bringing the total to 41.

A Wasatch High School student was confirmed to have the virus and it is being treated as a case of “community spread," said state epidemiologist Angela Dunn — that is, the patient hasn’t traveled and doesn’t have ties to another known case of the virus.

The student was identified shortly after symptoms occurred, Dunn said. Those who were in contact with the student have been identified. No secondary cases — people who caught it from the student — have been diagnosed.

Of the total number of patients, 29 are residents and 10 are visitors to Utah, state officials posted in updated numbers on Monday afternoon. Previously, only seven non-Utahns had been diagnosed here.

None of the confirmed cases in Utah are health care workers, Dunn said.

The new resident cases are in Salt Lake County (2), Summit (2), Davis (1), Wasatch (1), Tooele (1), Weber (1) and in southwest Utah (1). Two of the newly infected visitors to the state were diagnosed in Salt Lake County and one in Summit County.

The Tooele County patient appears to have contracted the case while traveling, Dunn said. The new Davis County case also is travel-related.

The state had tested more than 700 patients for the coronavirus as of Monday afternoon, more than double the number that had been tested as of Saturday.

But due to shortages of testing equipment and supplies, health officials were asking Utahns not to seek testing unless they were so sick they required medical care.

“If you don’t need an extra level of care, you don’t necessarily need a test. It’s not necessarily going to change your care,” Dunn said. There is no treatment for the coronavirus, whether at home or in a hospital, Dunn said; only symptoms can be treated.

The reason the state was prioritizing the sickest patients, she said, is that they are the ones coming into contact with health care providers. If those patients are diagnosed, hospitals and clinics can judiciously allocate their dwindling supplies of personal protective equipment — disposable masks with specialized filters, as well as gowns and gloves.

That shortage of protective gear is making it difficult for medical staff to even get test swabs from patients, Dunn said because that equipment needs to be available for the doctors and nurses who are treating already-ill patients.

“That’s why they’re trying to conserve [personal protective equipment],” Dunn said.

The state is trying to obtain more protective gear, but Utah providers are vying with others in the United States, Dunn said.

There also are shortages of reagents — chemicals needed to process the tests — and other materials, Dunn said.

Those, she said, are “provided by our federal partners.”

ARUP Laboratories in Salt Lake City last week began conducting tests for University of Utah Hospital as well as other clients nationwide. Intermountain Healthcare also anticipated obtaining certification to process COVID-19 tests by the end of this week, Dunn said — but that operation would likely face the same shortages as other labs.

She acknowledged that limited testing meant that the state’s count of confirmed cases does not reflect the actual number of people in Utah infected with coronavirus.

“We do know there are cases out there we haven’t identified,” she said.

As the virus continues to spread, Dunn said, Utah will be reaching the point where the coronavirus is the default diagnosis for anyone with flu-like symptoms.

It’s not clear whether the federal government will provide the supplies needed to expand testing before Utah reaches that point, Dunn said.

With the goal of testing now focused on preserving hospital supplies, as opposed to providing a complete count of cases, it’s also not clear how an incomplete tally could impact attempts to prepare health care facilities for a potential rush of patients — or whether deceptively low numbers could affect how the public responds to health officials’ guidance to avoid crowds and travel.

Small gatherings, such as with family, "are encouraged and fine," as long as no one has symptoms of COVID-19, Dunn said. She recommends good hand hygiene and social distancing, "but it is good to keep those connections," she said.

“It’s important to keep doing the things that keep us happy,” Dunn said.

Health officials nationwide, Dunn said, are collecting data on how much the disease spreads from people who don’t have symptoms. “We’re going to learn new things every day from this outbreak,” she said.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)