Coronavirus in Utah: State has its deadliest week but there is also a glimmer of hope

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign along Salt Lake City's Parley's Trail on Tuesday, April 21, 2020.

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Utah’s deadliest stretch so far under COVID-19 ended Sunday.

For the first time in 12 days, the Utah Department of Health reported no new deaths tied to the highly contagious coronavirus. Despite that, this has been Utah’s deadliest week with the virus. Sixteen have died since April 19. That includes four deaths Friday — one less than the state’s single-day high — and two more Saturday, leaving Utah’s total at 41.

Yet the silence of the death knell Sunday may also signal a change of direction for the path of the virus. More people have been dying over the past weeks, yes, but more people have also been recovering.

“I don’t think anybody thinks we’re out of the woods yet,” said Utah Department of Health spokesperson Tom Hudachko, who warned that one day of zero deaths can’t be considered a trend, “but it’s moving in a positive direction.”

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Nearly 40%, or 1,568, of the 4,123 Utahns diagnosed with COVID-19 have recovered, the health department’s report showed. That is the highest percentage in the state since virus tracking began in early March. It reflects a steady increase in the rate of recovery over the past two months.

Recovery, Hudachko said, is defined by a person not dying within three weeks of testing positive for the virus. In the United States, 106,366 people have recovered from the virus out of 956,292 cases (11%), according to numbers compiled by Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center. Worldwide, the number of recovered COVID-19 patients is 860,875 out of 2,954,106 confirmed cases (29%).

In some parts of the state, that silver lining doesn’t have quite as much luster, though. That’s particularly true for places like Utah County, which has seen rapid growth in its coronavirus cases.

While Salt Lake County still has the most cases of COVID-19 in the state, Utah County is quickly catching up.

Utah County saw its diagnosed cases of the highly contagious coronavirus climb by at least 7% day over day for seven of the past eight days, according to reports by the state health department. The county counted 417 diagnosed cases and 23 hospitalizations on April 19. By Sunday, those numbers had risen to 777 cases with 42 hospitalized. That included more than 9% increases in diagnosed cases each day from April 18 to April 20 and again Friday. Between Saturday and Sunday, the county gained 52 new cases, a 7.17% increase.

Utah County Health Department spokesperson Aislynn Tolman-Hill said she believes the increase is the product of additional testing and the natural pattern of the spread of the virus out from the state’s more tourist-driven areas.

“It’s definitely a major concern and definitely the No. 1 thing we’re working on as a health department. It’s certainly been an all-hands-on-deck response for the last two months now,” she said. “But I think it does follow that, being the second-largest county in the state, that Salt Lake County would have the largest amount of cases and we would be next. I do think it took a bit of time for it to shake out this way.”

Utah County is the second-largest in the state with a population of 636,235, about half the population of Salt Lake County. It has about a third as many cases as that county, which has the most in the state with 2,144. Salt Lake County’s total grew by 83 from Saturday, an increase of 5%.

Davis County, Utah’s third-most populous county, only saw a 2.5% increase in diagnosed cases Sunday. It has 275 total confirmed cases out of a population of 340,621.

Hudachko said the rise in COVID-19 cases in Utah County most likely isn’t linked to more testing.

“It’s probably additional burden of disease,” he said.

The percentage of growth in cases in Salt Lake County seems consistent with the growth of the virus in the state as a whole despite more people getting tested.

For the second straight day, the health department reported the number of people tested for COVID-19 in Utah rose by more than 5,000 to a total of 95,702 Sunday. Of those, 175 more were diagnosed with the virus, an increase of 4% for a total of 4,123. The increase in the number of cases in the state have not risen above 5% or dipped below 3% since April 16.

Despite being the 30th most-populous state in the nation, the number of people tested in Utah ranks 16th among the states, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. The state has made testing available to anyone exhibiting a symptom.

“We want people to know that if you have even one of the symptoms of COVID-19 that testing has been loosened up and increased and is available,” Tolman-Hill said.