Utah’s confirmed coronavirus cases surpass 1,000, but hospitalizations remain low, health officials say

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Medical workers provide drive-thru COVID-19 testing at University of Utah Health’s Redwood Health Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 27, 2020.

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Utah is not seeing exponential growth in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases so far, likely thanks to continued social distancing by residents, state epidemiologist Angela Dunn said Wednesday.

The number of cases appears to be flattening, but officials need to see that trend continue “for a good two weeks” before drawing a conclusion, Dunn said.

Utah passed the 1,000 mark for confirmed coronavirus cases, and two more patients died, the Utah Department of Health reported Wednesday. Both of the patients who died were over age 65, Dunn said.

One of the deaths is 83-year-old Donna Saracino, according to her family. She died Tuesday at University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City. Saracino was a resident of Chateau Brickyard Senior Living, near the boundary between Salt Lake City and Millcreek.

Last week the facility announced two residents had been diagnosed with coronavirus: Saracino and a second person, who was recovering in an apartment there.

The other patient who died, also in a Salt Lake County hospital, was in hospice care at his home until recently, health officials said. They did not know the origin of his infection.

The state’s total of confirmed cases increased 14% on Wednesday, to 1,012. Utah now has reported seven coronavirus deaths.

The number of coronavirus patients requiring hospital care rose to 91, up from 73 on Tuesday. More than 170 remain “under investigation” as to whether the patient was hospitalized, according to the state’s report.

The number of hospitalizations is important, as the state tries to conserve hospital beds, ventilators and personal protective equipment for medical staff and tries to prevent the virus from spreading to hospital workers.

State officials on Wednesday still did not have a count of all of the ventilators and intensive care unit beds in Utah despite repeated media inquiries.

But a number of businesses had responded to the state’s call for donations of personal protective equipment, said Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox. Now the state is asking for air purifiers — but not just any air purifiers.

Cox, who leads the state’s coronavirus task force, wants what looks like a mask or helmet connected to a hose. The hose will lead to an air tank. The mask or helmet is a piece of protective equipment for health care workers.

“We have seen those being made in other states and we’re putting out the call here,” Cox said Wednesday at a news conference.

Cox asked any manufacturer who might be able to make such gear to go to https://coronavirus.utah.gov/help/ where information will be posted under a heading about personal protective equipment.

Meanwhile, coronavirus tests continued to be administered in higher volumes than previously was possible, Dunn said. As of Wednesday, 20,155 Utahns had been tested, according to the state’s report. On Tuesday, the state received results for 1,642 patients.

On Wednesday, Intermountain Healthcare announced that it had expanded its capacity to test people. Gov. Gary Herbert and leaders in the Utah’s technology sector, known as Silicon Slopes, are expected to announce their own initiative Thursday to increase testing capacity.

Intermountain can now collect up to 1,500 samples and process 1,000 tests daily at 20 drive-up and curbside locations throughout the state.

“We know that many people are worried about the cost of testing,” said Rebekah Couper-Noles, Intermountain vice president of operations. “What people need to be aware of is through the Family First Coronavirus Response Act, everyone is covered for COVID-19 testing, regardless of your insurance status.”

Though the testing capabilities have expanded, Intermountain is asking that only people showing symptoms pursue testing. Patients should call its hotline, 844-442-5224, to have their symptoms assessed; a nurse will determine whether they should go to a testing site.

Couper-Noles said they prefer that people call the number ahead of time and make an appointment, but sites can accommodate those who go to a testing center without calling ahead.

Health care workers who are conducting curbside testing will be wearing personal protective equipment, including a mask and hood. So far, Intermountain is in a “good place” as for its supply of protective gear, said Anthony Wallen, a doctor for the health system.

Testing capacity at the University of Utah and ARUP Laboratories should remain steady despite voluntary unpaid leave being taken by staff at ARUP, said Brian Jackson, spokesman for the Salt Lake City lab.

Despite high demand for coronavirus tests, Jackson said, demand for other diagnostics is down, as hospitals and clinics limit procedures and services in order to conserve equipment for anticipated pressure on health care resources due to the spread of coronavirus. That has led to a drop in revenue.

“The whole lab industry is going to take a hit,” Jackson said. “It’s not like the restaurant industry, but yes: Lower office visits and lower outpatient visits mean less testing.”

That happened “just after ARUP made a major investment in instruments and supplies necessary to introduce COVID-19 testing and expand our testing capacity to meet a critical COVID-19 testing need,” ARUP CEO Sherrie L. Perkins said in a prepared statement.

Lab employees have been offered unpaid leave with benefits — an option that about 100 have taken, Perkins said.

Meanwhile, executive pay has been cut to offset losses amid the coronavirus crisis, she said. Perkins and company president Andy Theurer will each take an initial 25 percent cut, with a 10 percent cut to other executives’ pay. All executives and managers will forgo third-quarter bonuses — “something many of them volunteered to do even before executives approved the move,” Perkins said.

But the lab intends to meet the demand it does have, and it will retain whatever staff is necessary to sustain the state’s testing capacity for COVID-19, Jackson said.

“That’s the top priority,” Jackson said. “Nothing is going to happen that limits us to run the tests that need to be run.”

— Tribune reporters Jessica Miller and Nate Carlisle contributed to this story.