Confirmed Utah coronavirus cases still rising slowly but recovery data is hard to come by

Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist from the Utah Department of Health, speaks during the daily COVID-19 briefing at the Utah State Capitol Thursday, April 9, 2020, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, Pool)

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Utah’s confirmed coronavirus cases continued to increase slowly on Thursday, with a 7% rise in diagnoses and no new deaths for the third straight day, the Utah Department of Health reported.

State epidemiologist Angela Dunn announced the usual daily numbers: Utah had 1,976 confirmed cases as of Thursday, up 130 from Wednesday. And 168 people have been hospitalized because of COVID-19, up from 158 on Wednesday.

But state health officials also are trying now to compile more detailed data on Utah’s outbreak, she said, including infection, death and hospitalization rates for racial and ethnic minorities, and recovery rates for all people who have been infected.

Those figures so far have been incomplete, Dunn said. “We’re looking at ways to fill in the gaps,” she said of coronavirus data by race and ethnicity. States such as Louisiana have found that African Americans represent a disproportionately high number of COVID-19 infections and deaths.

Dunn said Utah’s total numbers are small compared to other states, making it difficult to spot trends. But Utah Department of Health staffers began working Wednesday on compiling what data there is.

“We’re hoping by next week we’ll be able to show that data publicly,” Dunn said.

Gathering statistics on how many patients have recovered from coronavirus has been more complicated because, Dunn said, “nationally, there is no standard definition about what ‘recovered’ means."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise that patients can safely end home isolation if seven days have passed since symptoms began, they have been fever-free for at least 72 hours without medicine, and all other symptoms have improved.

But, Dunn said, “keeping track of those has become difficult. We have such a small hospitalization rate that the vast majority of people are recovering at home.”

The state is considering tracking recoveries by tallying patients who were diagnosed at least three weeks ago and have not died, Dunn said. Some other states have begun to report recoveries based on survival; Michigan, for example, counts a patient as “recovered” if they have survived for 30 days after diagnosis.

“We have been looking at preliminary numbers, but nothing right now is very clean because there is no standard for defining that,” Dunn said.

The state health department also reported 38,373 Utah patients have been tested for coronavirus — up more than 2,200 from Wednesday, after the number of test results had dipped for a few days.

“We now have the capacity statewide to test all patients who have symptoms consistent with COVID-19," Dunn said, urging health care workers to refer all such patients for testing. Some patients have said providers recently told them they were ineligible for testing despite the presence of common symptoms: fever, cough, or shortness of breath.

In its test results, the state is "still holding steady at a 5% positive rate,” Dunn added. That’s far lower than the national positive rate of more than 19 percent, according to data from The COVID-19 Tracking Project.

The biggest single-day increase in the number of cases so far was on April 4, with 182 cases.

Also on Thursday, Gov. Gary Herbert said Utah’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” directive will be extended to the end of April, in accordance with federal guidelines. Herbert said state officials hoped to determine next week whether Utah schools would reopen before the end of the school year.

Meanwhile, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson announced Thursday that the county would extend its stay-at-home order through May 1.

Wilson told The Salt Lake Tribune previously that she was considering extending that mandate from its current April 13 end date through “perhaps Memorial Day or longer.” The May 1 decision will better align the county’s rules with those in other counties, she explained during a weekly news conference briefing.

The new order will largely mirror the current order, Wilson said. Essential businesses will be allowed to keep operating, while the businesses closed by the stay-at-home order — including hair and nail salons, spas and massage parlors, as well as swimming pools, playgrounds, recreation centers, movie theaters, bowling alleys and social clubs — will remain shuttered.