Utah is ‘starting to see a flattening of the curve’ with COVID-19 cases but will watch the coming week, state epidemiologist says

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign in the window of a home in Millcreek, Friday, April 17, 2020.

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Although Utah has reported at least one death from COVID-19 for the past seven days in a row, the state is “starting to see a flattening of the curve in the last week or so,” state epidemiologist Angela Dunn said at a Monday news briefing.

The state has recorded 3,213 cases of the coronavirus as of Monday, 144 more than were reported Sunday. The increase in the number of new cases has gone up in tandem with the increased number of tests conducted, Dunn said, and the rate of confirmed new cases remains fairly constant, at around 5%.

“It is a good sign that we’re seeing a consistent number of new cases every day,” Dunn said, but added that officials want to see this week’s statistics before declaring it a trend. “We’ll definitely want to watch the next week or so.”

Gov. Gary Herbert announced Friday the state’s plan for a “soft” reopening of the economy, possibly by the first of May.

The death recorded Monday was Allen Dee Pace, who contracted the virus while serving a senior mission in the Detroit area for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and died outside Utah. He is counted in the state’s death toll, which now stands at 28.

If Utah is approaching a COVID-19 peak, as some models have predicted, Dunn said the state is prepared. She noted hospitals have stopped performing elective surgeries to preserve personal protective equipment.

And with a declining transmission rate, University of Utah Hospital officials say they expect to be able to treat all patients who require care even in a “worst-case scenario” surge.

“For the first time since this pandemic entered our community, we feel at the University of Utah Hospital we have sufficient beds, sufficient ICUs and sufficient ventilators that in a surge situation we could care for those in our community who are confronted with this virus and the symptoms ... it causes,” Michael Good, CEO of University Health, said Friday in a video update.

In mid-March, health experts estimated that each infected person was infecting about three others, which would have led to a peak of about 3,000 patients at University Hospital, Good said — far beyond the health system’s 600 beds.

“And those three would infect three more and those nine would infect 27 and you can see you have an exponential rise in the number of people experiencing coronavirus infection,” Good said in a podcast with U. President Ruth Watkins.

In a presentation Monday, Good reiterated that after weeks of social distancing measures, the “reproduction number” — or number of people each patient infects — has temporarily dipped below one and is now hovering at about 1.1 or 1.2.

“All these signals show us the things we’re doing are making a difference,” Good said during a teleconference with technology executives. “Thanks to so many, we have flattened the curve in Utah.”

Now the question is," Good continued, "can we keep it flat but yet begin to open key pieces of our economy and do it in a very thoughtful and measured way? He said testing, contact tracing and isolating infected patients now “become a key part of any strategy going forward.”

There have been 268 Utahns hospitalized from COVID-19, the Utah Department of Health reported Monday. That’s nine more than were reported Sunday. Salt Lake County reported 1,671 cases, 140 hospitalizations and 15 deaths — just over half the state’s totals in those statistics.

Also, as of Monday, 68,311 people have been tested for the coronavirus. That figure is 4,756 more tests than were reported Sunday.

The number of tests has shot up to more than 4,000 a day in the past several days, after lower rates in the week before. Dunn credited that, in part, to targeted testing of populations that hadn’t been tested sufficiently.

"The key to stopping this pandemic is making sure anybody that needs to be tested for COVID-19 can get one,” Dunn said, listing those with symptoms, those exposed to a confirmed case and those working in higher-risk settings. “We’re meeting the mark there. We’re making sure all of our jurisdictions have testing now.”

The state is working to set up more drive-thru testing sites statewide, Dunn said, and getting testing access to rural parts of Utah.

Testing people randomly would produce a lot of data, Dunn said, but some of it may not be reliable. “We have such low prevalence of COVID-19," she said, “that if we do randomize testing across the state, there’s a high risk of false positives.”

Dunn said UDOH is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U. to start testing for COVID-19 antibodies — done with a sample of blood, rather than throat cultures.

People should maintain social distancing practices until the number of active cases decreases substantially, Dunn said. “There’s a lot we don’t know about this virus,” she said, but if it acts like other coronaviruses, it could ease off in the hot summer months, then return in the fall, causing “a potential second wave” of infections.

“We’re going to have to rely on people isolating themselves when they are sick,” she said.

Meanwhile, Utah scientists were making progress in developing both tests and treatments for COVID-19.

ARUP Laboratories in Salt Lake City announced Monday that it plans to roll out nationwide antibody testing by week’s end.

“Today’s announcement means community hospitals, health systems, academic medical centers and other health care organizations across the United States will gain access to high-quality antibody testing, whether they intend to use the test to understand how wide a COVID-19 outbreak is or to gain a better understanding of whether antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 provide definitive immunity to the disease,” read a news statement from the private lab.

Antibody test results could help develop treatments for COVID-19 — one of which is being worked on at the U.

Scientists there are studying the protein on the outside of the virus — the “spikes” depicted in drawings of the virus, said University Health researcher Debra Eckert.

“That’s what we target,” Eckert said in an online interview with Silicon Slopes founder Clint Betts, a member of The Salt Lake Tribune’s board of directors. “We design molecules that will bind to that spike protein while it’s trying to get into a cell and block it from doing that."

Pace’s death was the first fatality recorded for the Bear River Health Department, which covers Utah’s three northernmost counties: Box Elder, Cache and Rich. None of the 28 deaths in Utah has taken place in a correctional facility, Dunn said.

Reporter Tony Semerad contributed to this story.