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Utah’s government turned the official coronavirus risk dial from red to orange this Friday, signaling a new phase of handling the COVID-19 pandemic. People can now get haircuts, visit the dentist and even eat at restaurants. You might expect the virus to grow as a result, but how much?
To find out, we’ll need to compare future spread to where we were before things opened up. That makes this an especially good time to recap where Utah stands in a number of key areas, giving us a baseline to see how changing policy directives impact what’s happening in our state. So, let’s start with the basics.
Cases and deaths
As of Saturday, Utah had reported 4,981 coronavirus cases. Of those, 418 people were hospitalized, and 49 people have died. That’s a hospitalization rate of 8.7%, and a case fatality ratio of 0.98%. And Utah ranked 27th in cases per capita in the U.S., and 46th in deaths per capita.
Certainly, that case number is an undercount of how many people had actually contracted the disease. But relative to other states and even other nations, Utah is clearly reporting more of its coronavirus cases thanks to a relatively high testing percentage.
According to the state, 117,804 people have been tested for the disease in Utah. That means roughly 3.6% of Utah’s population has been tested, which ranks 5th highest in the United States.
Utah is estimating that 2,185 of those cases have recovered, meaning there are 2,747 cases active. To really know where we stand, we’d want to know active hospitalizations, but the state doesn’t report those, at least not yet. The state also doesn’t report how many people have been put in intensive care units or on ventilators.
Still, at least tracking hospitalizations gives us a sense of where we stand. We want to make sure that we don’t run out of beds for sick people, as we saw take place in Italy and to a degree in New York City. Here is how the number of reported hospitalizations has changed on a day-to-day basis in Utah.
Of course, we don’t know how many of these hospitalized patients are still in beds, though it is clear that many Utah hospitals are currently operating well below capacity. As just one example, University of Utah Health says it has a surge capacity that can allow it to handle 600 patients, and projects that it will need 415 of those beds by August.
Who and where?
People over 65 are considered to be at high-risk, but in Utah, the majority of hospitalizations — 69.5% — are people who are under 65. That makes some sense, because 89.9% of Utahns have yet to reach 65
When looking at deaths, 38 were confirmed to be from people 60 or over, with seven who were younger than 60. The ages of four of the deaths are unknown.
Like in other major metro areas, the pandemic is hitting Utah’s minority communities hardest. Despite Utah’s white majority — 78% of Utahns are white — only 43% of Utah’s cases have been from that demographic group. Just 0.09% of all white Utahns tested positive, while 0.40% of Latinos, 0.25% of Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders, 0.21% of blacks, 0.17% of American Indians, and 0.11% of Asians did.
Thanks to its status as an international tourist destination, Summit County was Utah’s first coronavirus hotspot and still has its highest per-capita case count, though it has seen a considerable slowdown in positive cases in recent weeks. The county has 375 cases, meaning nearly 1 in 100 Summit County residents have tested positive. Nearby Wasatch County has reported 156 cases, Utah’s second-highest positive rate. About 1 in 200 residents there have tested positive.
But as you’d expect, the largest numbers overall are in Utah’s most populated counties. Salt Lake County has 2,609 cases and 31 of the 49 deaths: roughly 1 in 440 Salt Lake County residents has tested positive. Utah County comes in second place, with 1,021 cases so far and 9 deaths. About 1 in 620 Utah County residents have tested positive.
San Juan County has become a relative hotspot, with a majority of its cases coming from the Navajo Nation. There have been 78 cases and two deaths there, or about 1 in 220 residents.
Data from Google’s Community Mobility Reports tracks how the number of people traveling to various public spaces has changed during the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic baselines.
Clearly, Utah’s residents have changed their behavior when asked to socially distance. Google’s data was most recently updated on April 26, and as of that date, here’s where Utahns stood in the six categories tracked:
Travel to workplaces and in residential areas has stayed flat. There are small recent upticks in mobility in grocery stores, retail and recreation, and transit stations. Parks have seen huge growth in travel as weather has improved.
Utahns have largely supported policies enacted during the pandemic. According to state polls conducted by Harvard, Northeastern and Rutgers universities from April 17 to April 26, Utah residents somewhat or strongly supported limiting restaurants to carry out (87%), closing schools (89%), canceling sports events (90%), requiring most businesses to shutter (75%) and asking residents to stay home (92%).
That same poll found that 18% of Utahns reported being laid off, 70% say they’re at least somewhat concerned about financial hardships, while 40% were worried about losing their job. And 54% of Utahns were worried about contracting the virus themselves, and 75% were worried about a family member getting it.
When polled, Utahns had mixed opinions on when the state should restart activity, with 9% saying it should be done immediately, and 17% wanted it to happen in the next 2 weeks (as it did). That means quite a few wanted the state to hold off. The poll found that 19% responded businesses should open in 2-4 weeks, 17% in 4-6 weeks, 19% in 6-8 weeks and and 18% after 8 weeks.
Projecting the future
The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington has become widely cited over the course of the pandemic and used from the White House on down. The model has significant flaws to consider, but currently estimates that Utah will have 281 deaths by June 1 — though this model gives a wide estimate range of between 62 and 1,154 deaths.
Another model from the Los Alamos National Lab is more optimistic. It currently estimates Utah will face 72 deaths by June 1.
Because of changing conditions and numbers over the course of the pandemic, as well as model accuracy updates, the number of deaths projected by each model has changed in significant ways. The COVID Projections Tracker keeps on top of the various model projections and how they’ve changed over time.
Finally, one important number to keep in mind is Utah’s effective contagion rate. Represented by the variable Rt, the effective contagion rate represents the average number of people that an infected person ends up infecting themselves. A Rt below one means that the virus is shrinking in Utah, while anything above one means that it is growing.
The most recent estimate of Utah’s Rt from analyst Kevin Systrom’s model is 0.93.
As May opens and turns to June, we’ll be able to see how these numbers evolve. Certainly, an increase in coronavirus spread wouldn’t show immediately, because there’s a 2-14 day delay between when someone is infected and when they begin to show symptoms. But by the end of the month, we’ll have an idea of what impact opening parts of our economy had on the spread of the virus in Utah.
Andy Larsen is a Tribune sports reporter who covers the Utah Jazz. During this crisis, he has been assigned to dig into the numbers surrounding the coronavirus. You can reach Andy at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @andyblarsen.