Utah health officials look toward state’s gradual reopening, examine when the coronavirus first arrived

(Kristin Murphy, Deseret News/pool file photo) Dr. Angela Dunn, Utah state epidemiologist, speaks during the daily COVID-19 media briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 22, 2020.

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As Utah’s public health officials look to the future, and a cautious reopening of businesses closed during the coronavirus pandemic, they also will look to the past — to see if the virus landed in Utah earlier than experts have chronicled.

Utah’s transmission rate of COVID-19 is slowing and the number of cases in the state appears to be plateauing, state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said Monday.

The Utah Department of Health reported Monday that another 110 Utahns had been diagnosed with COVID-19 since the day before. The new cases brought the state’s tally to 4,233 since the outbreak began in early March.

For the second straight day, no new deaths from COVID-19 were reported by UDOH. After UDOH’s midday report, however, data from the Salt Lake County Health Department showed one more fatality from the virus, bringing the statewide count to 42. Salt Lake County has seen 25 fatalities from the virus, more than the rest of the state’s counties combined.

There have been just four new hospitalizations statewide since Sunday, the lowest daily increase this month. There have been a total of 349 people hospitalized in Utah because of COVID-19.

The state also has eclipsed 100,000 tests performed. The rate of positive tests has remained fairly steady, at a little more than one out of every 25 tests coming back positive, Dunn said.

To keep the number of new cases low, Dunn said, the state will expand its efforts to track contacts a COVID-19 patient may have had, contacting those who the positive patient had been in contact with a week before the positive test, rather than two days.

"These are very encouraging numbers,” Dunn said, “and in order to keep driving our transmission rate lower, especially as we reopen parts of our economy, we’re working on expanding our contact tracing as well.”

Dunn said the state’s approach of shifting incrementally toward reopening businesses is a prudent way to move forward.

“I think that’s the right way to do it, to do this slow rollout … while monitoring for disease, so if we see an increase in cases we increase restrictions again,” Dunn said.

The state, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, still caution against nonessential travel, Dunn said. Traveling to other states that have higher infection rates would increase the risk of a traveler being exposed, she said.

“Nationally, we’re still in the acceleration phase of this outbreak … so it’s definitely not controlled, so we won’t open up those domestic travel restrictions until we start to see more of a plateau nationally,” she said.

Dunn reiterated warnings from the World Health Organization that having COVID-19 may not mean the patient is immune once he or she recovers.

“There is currently no evidence that any individual does become immune” after recovering from the disease, Dunn said.

Based on experience in other coronaviruses, she said, it is reasonable to expect that there would be some level of immunity, but moving forward “to reopen things based on immunity is still a gamble.”

Utah’s first official case of COVID-19 was reported on Feb. 28. UDOH is investigating whether the state missed cases earlier than that, Dunn said.

Health officials will retest some people who tested negative for influenza in February, to see if they are carrying coronavirus antibodies, Dunn said. UDOH does not have plans at the moment, she said, to test anyone whose deaths were not previously attributed to COVID-19.

Last week, officials in Santa Clara, Calif., announced that autopsies of two residents who died on Feb. 6 and Feb. 17 showed they had been infected with the coronavirus. Those deaths were weeks before what had been believed to be the nation’s first COVID-19 death, on Feb. 29 in the Seattle area.