As Utah’s rate of positive COVID-19 tests dips, the state OKs a return to elective surgeries

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South Jordan • As the rate of Utahns testing positive for COVID-19 dips lower, the state’s health care providers will resume elective surgeries after a break of several weeks, Gov. Gary Herbert said Tuesday.

Herbert made the announcement at a Merit Medical Systems, Inc. facility in South Jordan, where the company began production Tuesday of a new stream of swabs and sample collection kits for use in testing for the coronavirus.

Utah has ordered 400,000 kits, the governor said, adding: “We’re going to have enough for our needs.”

The March 23 public health order to postpone elective surgeries and procedures went into effect two days later, although Intermountain Healthcare and University of Utah Health Services had stopped them more than a week earlier.

The Utah Department of Health order, aimed at preventing the spread of the virus and preserving personal protective equipment for health care workers, was originally scheduled to be in force until April 25.

Herbert ordered the department to update it; that decision was made in collaboration with Utah hospital leaders who now say they have the supplies they need, he said. The Utah Hospital Association, the Utah Medical Association, the Utah Dental Association and other medical providers helped develop new guidelines.

“I am very pleased today to announce that we will be instructing our medical providers to resume elective medical procedures in a measured and cautious way,” Herbert said. “We’ve had some remarkably good good numbers; our transmission rate has now slowed down and ... new hospitalizations have decreased.”

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox noted that the move to restart elective surgeries is “not just a light switch." The first procedures will likely be outpatient ones that won’t put demands on bed space, he said.

The Utah Department of Health reported Tuesday that 277 people have been hospitalized since the outbreak began, up nine patients from Monday.

State epidemiologist Angela Dunn said Tuesday that the state’s rate of confirmed cases, which had been holding steady at 5% of tests having positive results, has fallen to 4.5%. Michael Good, CEO of University Health, said Monday that the number of people each patient infects is now hovering at about 1.1 or 1.2.

Five new coronavirus fatalities were reported Tuesday, with three connected to long-term care facilities, according to information compiled by the state and the Salt Lake County Health Department. The state’s death toll from the disease now stands at 33. The latest deaths were hospitalized patients over age 60, with underlying health conditions, officials said.

The state added 83 confirmed cases — a 3% increase, for a state total of 3,296; and another 4,047 COVID-19 test results were reported.

The state recognized about three weeks ago that a shortage was developing of the swabs used in testing, Ben Hart, deputy director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, said at Merit Medical Systems on Tuesday.

Fred P. Lampropoulos, Merit Medical Systems chairman and CEO, said at that point, he and state officials "talked about this incredible need.”

“In a matter of two weeks, we have spent every day, every weekend, every evening here with about 15 engineers who have helped to develop this swab and this testing kit,” Lampropoulos said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Merit Medical Systems, Inc. facility in South Jordan is producing sample and collection kits for use in COVID-19 testing, Tuesday April 21, 2020.

Production will begin at about 10,000 kits a day, in conjunction with Deseret Labs in St. George, and will eventually ramp up to 50,000 a day, he said. “That sounds like a big number, but that will just meet the orders we’ve already received," he said.

Utah previously had worked to cobble together a supply of swabs ordered from several companies, said Robyn Atkinson-Dunn, director of the Utah Public Health Laboratory.

But that “didn’t give us a long-term solution,” Hart said. “This is the long-term solution.”

Reporter Nate Carlisle contributed to this story.