Coronavirus epidemic in Utah is just beginning — and will last for months, state official says

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist from the Utah Department of Health in Salt Lake City, describes the process of getting a nose and throat swab for coronavirus testing after speaking at a press conference on Saturday, March 14, 2020.

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Does it seem like forever since the coronavirus shut down schools, restaurants and large gatherings — and forced social distancing? If so, Utah state epidemiologist Angela Dunn has some disconcerting news.

“We know that we are at the very beginning of this epidemic,” she said Thursday at a news conference, announcing the state now has 78 confirmed cases. “Outbreaks like this can be expected to last several months.”

She couldn’t give a more precise time estimate than that.

“Because it’s a novel disease, we really don’t have the ability to accurately predict how long all of this is long to last,” she said. “But based on other outbreaks in the past and other pandemics, we can expect it to last for a few months.”

She said some hope can be seen from China, where the outbreak first occurred late last year. On Thursday, China for the first time in months reported no new cases — and numbers have been low in other recent days.

Dunn said that shows an end is in sight for everyone.

“We’re hoping that here in the United States we can learn from some of their strategies and be able to handle this a little quicker, but time will tell,” she said. “China implemented social distancing measures in an outbreak very similar to what we’re doing here. And that is a big reason why they started seeing a decrease in cases.”

Dunn pointed out that Utah is only at the beginning of the epidemic in order to stress the need for everyone to do their part to slow it down and help stretch thin resources.

“We need to really make sure that we’re ensuring the capacity of our health care system during this epidemic,” she said. “People can do their part by adhering to the social distancing measures and recommendations that we put into place.”

As of Thursday afternoon, the state reported 68 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among residents and 10 among visitors to the state. No deaths have occurred.

“Salt Lake County and Summit County are really bearing the brunt,” she said.

Salt Lake County has 29 cases, and Summit County has 19. Dunn noted that Salt Lake County was expected to see many cases because it is the state’s largest urban area, and Summit County’s outbreak started in part because of the high number of visitors it attracts.

Dunn said 1,526 people in the state have been tested for COVID-19, although she said that underrepresents the total because some private labs have reported only positive tests to the state. Officials are working to change that.

Among the factors slowing testing have been the limited amounts of full protective clothing that workers are supposed to wear when they collect saliva or samples for testing, and the reagents needed to process most tests.

“We’re working with local companies in order to try to figure out if we can produce those in Utah and use them for Utah testing,” she said. “Know that we as a state and our partners from multiple sectors are working hard to increase the capacity of testing in Utah. But that will take time.”

One ray of hope is that a U.S. Food and Drug Administration rule change now allows a Utah company that had been selling COVID-19 testing kits abroad — after approval by the European Union — to also pursue selling them more widely in the United States.

“We have the capacity to manufacture up to 50,000 tests per day,” said Andrew Benson, spokesman for molecular diagnostics company Co-Diagnostics. “Our test has not been used to diagnose or test anybody in Utah right now.”

The company had been able to sell domestically only to some specially certified labs allowed to use its product in emergency conditions. FDA rule changes this week now mean that as soon as the company finishes a clinical evaluation and applies for FDA approval — which is in process — it can sell tests to a wider array of U.S. labs for use while formal approval is pending.

“We are confident in our ability to meet the growing demand,” said Co-Diagnostics CEO Dwight Egan.

Dunn said the company also said it is willing to use its good relations with other companies to help the state obtain 10,000 “extraction kits” that the state says it needs, which extract genetic material from samples to allow testing.

Co-Diagnostics tests are already in use in Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Greece, the Philippines, Thailand, Australia, Paraguay, Ecuador, Israel, South Africa and Canada.

With testing limited for now, Dunn urges people who have not been tested who show symptoms to act as if they have it. And not only should people with symptoms stay home, so should everyone in their household, Dunn said.

“Now the recommendation is if somebody is symptomatic in the household, the whole household stays home until everyone feels better,” she said.

Dunn was asked if celebrities — such as basketball players or members of Congress — are moved to the head of the line for the limited-available testing.

“We have not done that in Utah,” she said. ”Everyone’s who been tested in Utah has followed the public health guidelines that we set forth.”