Utah reports six coronavirus deaths, most in a single day

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Signs are placed at Liberty Park in Salt Lake City, encouraging people to social distance as warm temperatures bring people out to recreate, April 21, 2020.

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The Utah Department of Health announced six new deaths from the coronavirus Tuesday — the highest number since the pandemic came to Utah. That brings the total number of deaths in the state to 56.

The previous record was five deaths reported on April 6.

There were also 132 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state as of Tuesday, adding up to a total of 5,449 — a daily rate increase of 2.5% from Monday. Plus, an additional 15 people were hospitalized and more than 2,000 new tests were reported, according to figures from the health department.

Overall, the state has conducted 126,715 tests, 4.3% of which have revealed positive diagnoses. Nearly 2,400 of those cases are considered "recovered,” meaning the person was diagnosed with COVID-19 more than three weeks ago and hasn’t died.

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The state’s record death toll comes at a time when Utah’s government has turned the official coronavirus risk dial from red to orange, signaling a new phase of handling the COVID-19 pandemic with fewer restrictions on businesses and movement — though it’s likely too early to attribute any new deaths to those changes, which took effect Friday.

Charla Haley, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Health, said officials don’t have a sense of what may have contributed to the higher number of coronavirus deaths reported Tuesday. And while she said the department is “always concerned when we lose someone as a result of a novel virus,” she noted that the individuals who died “all had underlying conditions that increased their risk for severe illness from COVID-19.”

Despite the increase, Utah’s death rate remains relatively low compared with other states. Utah currently ranks 46th in deaths per capita, according to Worldometer, an international provider of COVID-19 statistics.

The state has a slightly lower than average per-capita case rate ranking 28th among states.

Mortality rates vary across states and countries for a number of reasons, including differences in the number of people tested and in demographics, an analysis from John Hopkins University notes.

“We’re fortunate that Utah’s public health system functions well as a unit and works together to protect Utah residents,” Haley said of the state’s lower death toll. “Between the state and local public health, we have a robust contact tracing capability which enables us to respond quickly to illness. We are also fortunate to have adequate testing capacity along with a large provider capacity.”

Salt Lake County epidemiology bureau manager Ilene Risk agreed that testing ability has been a positive in the state’s coronavirus response but pointed out that testing had decreased Monday.

The caseload “does look like it’s stable,” she said. "But on the bad side, that could be directly related to the fact that we saw a dip in the number of tests being done.”

She also said the number of deaths is “concerning,” particularly with the social distancing measures Utahns have taken to curb the spread of the virus.

“We would hope ... that we would see a lessening of cases, a lessening of deaths” at this point, she said.

In Utah, Haley said the state’s “younger, healthier population” may be another factor in the lower caseload and death rates the state has seen so far.

The Beehive State has the youngest population in the nation, with a median age of 31 years compared with 38.2 nationally as of 2018. That same year, more than 29% of the population was under age 18 compared with 22% of the total U.S. population, according to the state’s public health database.

That matters because adults over age 65 are particularly vulnerable to severe illness as a result of the coronavirus. Eight in 10 deaths in the United States associated with the virus have affected that age group so far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Population density also plays a factor in the number of deaths, Risk said. That’s why Utah has fewer cases than bigger metropolitan areas and why Salt Lake County, the state’s most populous, has the largest number of cases in the state.

“This virus is transmitted by respiratory droplets so obviously if you have a less dense population compared to New York City for example, you do have a decreased rate,” she said.

Four of the six deaths reported Tuesday were Salt Lake County residents — three women and two men — over the age of 60. Two of the women who died were staying in long-term care facilities, according to the state health department.

That brings the total number of deaths among people in those facilities to 26. Of the 35 deaths in Salt Lake County, 51% have been associated with long-term care, Risk said.

The other two deaths were men — one in Utah County over the age of 85 and another in Washington County between the ages of 18 and 59. All six people had underlying medical conditions and were hospitalized at the time of their deaths, the department said.

While there have been concerns in other states about public officials under- or over-counting deaths, Haley noted that the Utah Office of the Medical Examiner is screening most deaths for symptoms of COVID-19.

“Currently, all bodies that come into the [medical examiner’s office] are receiving COVID-19 tests even if the people died in a car crash or from something else that had nothing to do with COVID-19,” she said.

People who are diagnosed with COVID-19 before death are not being brought to the office for an autopsy and the medical examiner typically does not autopsy people who die from known natural causes, Haley noted. Doing so "for patients who were diagnosed with COVID-19 before death might risk exposing our pathologists and staff to the virus,” she added.