Why is Utah not getting hit as hard as other places? New coronavirus data offers some clues.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Neighbors keep their distance as they celebrate 9-year Owen Hickenlooper's birthday by lighting sparklers in front of his house, Saturday, March 28, 2020.

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We now have new data about Utahns with the coronavirus. We know their ages and how many are men and women. We know whether they were hospitalized or not.

Being the numbers geek that I am, I was excited to explore the new info released by the Utah Department of Health this week and learn more about the state of the coronavirus in our state, and how it compares to the national picture.

Seeing as I’ve sheltered in place for three weeks now and, as a result, have begun talking to myself to a worrying degree, I thought it’d be a good idea to bring that information to you via a question and answer session in which I write both the Qs and the As. Let’s get started.

What does the new data say?

The most important information is that 100 of the 1,074 people with the virus as of Thursday have been hospitalized, or about 9.3%. That’s important because the hospitalization rate is a key factor in whether or not Utah’s healthcare system will become overloaded. And our public health officials tell us that rate is manageable right now.

We should also note that there are 122 positive cases where the hospitalization status is “under investigation” and therefore unknown, though there isn’t any reason to believe at the moment that these people are more likely to be hospitalized than the average.

The data also specifies the age of coronavirus victims and their hospitalization rates.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Finally, a majority of those who tested positive have been men. As of Thursday, 55% of the positive tests came from men, 45% from women.

So Andy, how does that compare to the national picture?

Good question, Andy. The news for Utah seems to be better than you’d expect. While not every state reports this data now, we can get an idea of the national picture from two sources: a CDC study released on March 18, and New York City numbers released daily.

The CDC study investigated all of the positive cases in the United States that were discovered between Feb. 12 and March 16. Testing was even more limited back then, if you’ll recall. In order to get tested, generally you had to have pretty severe symptoms and/or had been in close contact with someone who had tested positive. (That second reason is why I was tested: I had been in Oklahoma City when we all learned that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had contracted the virus. Luckily, my test was negative.) There’s reason to believe that the national picture might have changed in the past two weeks. Still, hospitalization rates were pretty high across all age groups.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

New York City has released their data as well — with more recent cases, though from just a portion of the country. It shows that 21% of their cases have needed to be hospitalized, though you can see that the severity goes way up depending on the age of the sickened.

In NYC, again, 55% of positive cases were men, 45% women. Interestingly, 60% of hospitalizations were men.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Looks like hospitalizations are lower in Utah. What explains the differences in the numbers released by Utah and the U.S.?

There are a few possibilities. The most obvious is that Utah has likely done a better job of testing for mild cases of coronavirus than the rest of the U.S., especially when considering the period before March 16. That doesn’t mean testing in Utah has been brilliant, but about 1 in every 151 people in Utah has been tested, whereas 1 in 267 people in the US have been tested, according to the COVID Tracking Project. Testing is more frequent in New York, though: in the state, about 1 in 88 have received a test.

We also have demographic advantages.

Utah’s population skews young. According to the Census Bureau, about 11.1% of Utahns are over 64, while about 16% of Americans are over 64. Furthermore, 29.5% of Utahns are under 18, compared to 22.4% of Americans. On their own, those numbers make a big difference with regards to the hospitalization and death rates of Utah vs. the rest of America.

Finally, Utah is a healthier state than the national average, which reduces the likelihood of any given person having preexisting conditions that have been associated with more severe cases of COVID-19. A World Health Organization study of 72,000 Chinese cases showed the impact of these conditions on the rate of survival, but Utahns are simply less likely to have these conditions than most Americans overall. As an example, Utahns, likely due to the high number of Latter-day Saints, don’t smoke as much as other populations, meaning we have fewer people with lung conditions.

That helps explain why Utah ranks 22nd in coronavirus cases per capita, but 46th in coronavirus deaths per capita.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Hey, why are the elderly so much more likely to face bad outcomes?

I’m glad I asked. Whereas most diseases hit the elderly harder than others, it really seems like the coronavirus differences are especially stark, right?

Immune system fatigue is the likely answer, according to solid reporting done by Stat, a news organization you might not know about that has been doing some excellent work on the pandemic.

“With advancing age, the body has fewer T cells, which produce virus-fighting chemicals. By puberty, the thymus is producing tenfold fewer T cells than it did in childhood,” Stat wrote. “By age 40 or 50, there is another tenfold drop.” That’s a big drop!

That also helps explain the gender differences we’ve seen so far. Studies have shown that older women seem to produce more T cells and helper B cells than their male counterparts.

So I’m not elderly and I have no preexisting conditions. I don’t need to worry about the coronavirus, right?

You still need to worry. There are four reasons why.

1. You can still transfer the disease to the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, and in doing so endanger their lives. This is probably the reason you’ve heard the most.

2. You can still die. It is significantly less likely that you die, yes. But for reasons we can’t currently explain, even those with healthy immune systems and even some young people sometimes get a severe enough case that their body shuts down. A 7-week-old baby died in Connecticut, it was announced Wednesday. A 17-year-old in California died last week. The risk raises with those in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, and even just a 1 in 1,000 chance of dying scares me, to be honest.

3. You have a decent chance of being hospitalized, and take up a hospital bed someone else needs. Nationwide, about 20% of hospitalizations are people under 45. In Utah, it’s 25%.

4. It could mean bad things for your short and long-term health. Obviously, being sick is no fun. Being hospitalized is especially no fun, and it is also expensive.

But in particular, I’m not sure enough has been made of the possible long-term effects of catching this. This ProPublica story really brought that issue home for me, in which a medical worker describes his shock of seeing the catastrophic lung failure in relatively-young patients.

“I have patients in their early 40s and, yeah, I was kind of shocked. I’m seeing people who look relatively healthy with a minimal health history, and they are completely wiped out, like they’ve been hit by a truck,” the worker said. “This is knocking out what should be perfectly fit, healthy people. Patients will be on minimal support, on a little bit of oxygen, and then all of a sudden, they go into complete respiratory arrest, shut down and can’t breathe at all.”

For those who suffer that acute respiratory distress, it could take 15 years for their lungs to heal, according to a preliminary study done in the UK.

I’m glad I live in Utah, where death and hospitalization rates are relatively good bets to be low compared to national averages. But even for the young and healthy in our state, COVID-19 is definitely something to be concerned about.

Andy Larsen is a Tribune sports reporter who covers the Utah Jazz. During this crisis, he has been assigned to dig into the numbers surrounding the coronavirus. You can reach Andy at alarsen@sltrib.com or on Twitter at @andyblarsen.