Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing readers free access to critical local stories about the coronavirus during this time of heightened concern. See more coverage here. To support journalism like this, please consider donating or become a subscriber.
At midnight on Friday, Summit County’s stay-at-home order went into effect, requiring all residents to stay put unless they’re engaged in some essential function. Maybe as notable was what they told people who don’t live in Summit County: A locale that survives on tourism told visitors to stay away, and officials did so with some stark, frightening talk.
Rich Bullough, the county health director, said, “With the virus, per capita, we are similar to Italy. We are similar to New York City.”
Italy? New York? Those are places where the hospitals are completely overwhelmed and people are dying.
The county’s order also said this: “Summit County has the highest rate of all ski towns.” Are those claims true?
I’ll aim to answer that question, but let me answer another one for some of you who might be thinking: “Isn’t Andy the guy who covers the Utah Jazz for The Trib?”
Yep, that’s me.
And I still do cover the Jazz, but with the sports world put on the shelf my editors asked if I could turn some attention to the statistics swirling around COVID-19. I have a background in math and data analysis, and my goal in this series is to identify interesting questions during these troubling times and walk through the data behind it. If you have an idea, send it my way. My email is email@example.com.
OK, now back to Summit County, the home of Park City, world class skiing and the Sundance Film Festival. How bad is it?
One way to get at this is, as Bullough suggested, look at the cases per capita. To start, we need to know how many people live in Summit County. That’s 42,145 according to the Census Bureau’s 2019 estimate.
Next, how many cases does the county have?
By the time numbers were announced by the Utah Department of Health on Saturday, the county had 135 confirmed cases — 127 among residents and eight among visitors.
That means Summit County has one case of COVID-19 for every 312 residents — one of the highest rates for any county in all of the United States. And there are a lot of counties: 3,142 counties or county equivalents in America.
Summit County ranks seventh.
Here’s the list:
There should be a national all-in-one database for these county-by-county stats, but there isn’t — at least, not a public one. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other national agencies have only published state-by-state results.
But The New York Times went through the painstaking work of collecting the individual county reports from state and local governments, which they published first on Friday. This data is from their Saturday update.
You can see that there are basically three kinds of counties included in the top 10. First: New York City and its adjacent counties have been extremely hard hit by coronavirus so far.
The Times split the city out from its analysis, so it is not in the chart above. So far, the city has 29,777 cases out of 8.7 million residents, which means about one positive test for every 292 residents. Nearby counties are scattered throughout the top 10, including No. 1 Westchester County — the birthplace of Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell (Remember, I am a sports writer).
Then there’s Orleans Parish. Louisiana calls them parishes, not counties, but they’re largely the same thing. Orleans Parish encompasses much of New Orleans. As recently as two Saturdays ago, world-famous party locale Bourbon Street was packed with tourists — not exactly using best social distancing practices. Not surprisingly, New Orleans has proven to be a hotbed of COVID-19 spread.
And then there is the third category: ski resort counties.
Colorado’s Gunnison County is home to the Crested Butte ski resort, Eagle County has Vail. Sun Valley is in Blaine County, Idaho. And of course, Summit County is home to Park City and all of its associated ski resorts.
This analysis doesn’t show that Summit County has the highest rate among ski areas, at least, not at the county-by-county level. Instead, it comes in third.
It’s not too difficult to guess why these ski areas make this list. The virus struck hard in winter. Tourists like to ski. And tourist areas around the world have been particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus.
The day-by-day numbers from Summit County show this trend: on March 14, there were seven cases of coronavirus there, but five of those people were visitors. By March 27, there were only three more cases among visitors, but 100 more among residents.
March 14 was also the date that Utah health officials announced the first case of “community spread,” which means a case where they couldn’t explain how the person became infected.
It was the doorman at The Spur Bar and Grill on Park City’s Main Street, and it’s easy to imagine what likely happened: a tourist brought the disease and it jumped to a bar worker, who then probably came into contact with others. Obviously that’s an assumption, but here is a fact, Summit County’s cases quickly rose.
It has not been found in Park City alone. Bullough said that multiple cases had been found throughout the county, and that only further encouraged Bullough and county leaders to issue Utah’s first stay-at-home order, with Salt Lake City soon following suit.
So while we can see that Summit County has been hit as hard as New York per capita, what about Italy, or the rest of Europe?
I was shocked to see just how similar — or worse — Summit County’s per-capita numbers were to the hardest-hit areas of the world. To use just one example, the governor of Italy’s Lombardy region, home to 10 million people, banned outdoor exercise as part of a lockdown strengthened last Saturday when they had about 25,000 confirmed cases, or about 1 in 400 of their citizens. Summit County, remember, is at 1 in 312. Here’s where some of the hardest hit areas stand today:
To be clear, Summit County is significantly less dense than Lombardy or any of the other areas listed above, and the virus is less able to spread quickly as a result. It’s not time for a full lockdown in the mountains of Utah. But there’s no doubt, either, that Utah’s 10th-largest county is home to one of the highest per-capita concentrations of COVID-19 in the world.
There is one column in which Summit County is unique among these hard hit areas — it has zero deaths so far.
That’s even with Summit County having a relatively older populace: 12.6% of their residents are over 65, compared to 11.1% in Utah overall. Even with hospital beds at the ready, the virus hitting the wrong person at the wrong time can be fatal.
Some stats make me think the stay-at-home order might be more effective in a place like Summit County than other areas in Utah, though. Summit County has a much smaller number of average people per household than the state as a whole: only 2.77 people per household on average when compared to 3.13 people for Utah overall.
As long as people stay home, that alone should help limit the spread, though it’s important to note that we won’t see the results of the county’s stay-at-home order until about 10 days from now, given the coronavirus’ long incubation period.
The case numbers will continue to rise, but the order’s goal is to turn exponential growth into linear growth, growth that might slowly decline. But for the days to come, Summit County will likely stay on the nation’s unfortunate leaderboard.