Live coronavirus updates for Thursday, May 7: Utah minorities especially affected by COVID-19, panelists say

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Phlebotomist Adriana Rodriguez performs a blood draw to test for coronavirus antibodies in Park City on Wednesday, May 6, 2020, as part of the Utah HERO (Health & Economic Recovery Outreach) program. The massive undertaking will begin with randomized testing of 10,000 Utahns across four counties. The data gathered will inform decision-makers in the state as they work to help keep residents safe and get people back to work.

Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing free access to critical stories about the coronavirus. Sign up for our Top Stories newsletter, sent to your inbox every weekday morning. To support journalism like this, please donate or become a subscriber.

It’s Thursday, May 7. We’ll provide the latest coronavirus updates involving Utah throughout the day.

[Read complete coronavirus coverage here.]


Utah minorities especially affected by COVID-19, panelists say

Panelists from several Utah organizations addressed a virtual crowd in a Black Community Town Hall on Thursday night, delivering information and sharing advice with regards to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The meeting, which lasted just over an hour, featured informational presentations from each of the speakers on their topics of expertise, delivered via Zoom or Facebook Live.

Minorities are the most-affected group of Utah citizens by the coronavirus on a per-capita basis, Dr. Krow Ampofo from University of Utah Health pointed out in the town hall.

“We all know that our community is less likely to have health insurance and have access to not only health care, but quality health care,” Rep. Sandra Hollins from the Utah House of Representatives noted in her presentation. “We’re the ones that are working in the jobs in those industries where we really don’t have a choice but to go into work. Stay at home is not an option.”

Hollins shared advice on how to maintain social distancing and mental health during the pandemic, despite the challenges.

Two presentations were given from faith groups: Dr. Amadou Niang from the Utah Muslim Civic League and Rev. Dr. Oscar T. Moses from the Calvary Baptist Church both spoke. They emphasized the importance of maintaining community ties during the pandemic, even as houses of worship closed.

“We should change the discussion in the African American community to shift off of the threats and shift towards some of the opportunities,” Moses said. “What are the options made available in times of crisis?”

Bridget Shears from the Utah Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Commission and Claudia Loayza from the Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs also spoke. Loayza directed the audience toward resources at the division’s website, multicultural.utah.gov.

—Andy Larsen

More facilities to reopen in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, the National Park Service-ran area that surrounds Lake Powell, announced further reopening actions Thursday evening.

“We will soon get to a sustainable new normal which allows Glen Canyon to continue to be a world-class recreation destination,” Glen Canyon National Recreation Area Superintendent William Shott said in a statement. “Our plans do require everyone’s assistance and rely heavily on our trust that the public will follow CDC guidelines and act responsibly toward all visitors.”

As announced last week, all boats will be allowed to launch on Friday, Saturday and Sunday beginning on May 8 from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m at Bullfrog and Wahweap ramps for day use.

Furthermore, various concessions and facilities will also open on these days. Public restrooms at Bullfrog ramp, Wahweap ramp, Wahweap Swim Beach and Dangling Rope will also open on these days. Watercraft rentals will be available, and the Wahweap Marina Store and Sinclair gas station will open. The Wahweap Grille will open for takeout food, and the Wahweap RV Park and Campground will also open — including the campground store, laundry and shower facilities.

Beginning on May 15, the Bullfrog and Wahweap ramps will be open seven days per week, including for overnight use. Watercraft rentals will also be available seven days per week, including houseboats. The Halls Crossing launch ramp will be open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday after that date for only day-use boats.

The following weekend, even more facilities will open. These include the Lone Rock and Stanton Creek campgrounds; the Stateline Launch Ramp; the Hite RV Park and Campground and outpost store; and more. Wahweap Grille will even begin to offer limited indoor seating.

The National Park Service has asked the public to “follow local area health orders, practice Leave No Trace principles, avoid crowding and avoid high-risk outdoor activities” while recreating.

— Andy Larsen

Little Sahara to reopen Wednesday, BLM says

The Little Sahara Recreation Area will reopen Wednesday, May 13, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Fillmore office announced Thursday afternoon.

The main attraction of Little Sahara, located in Juab County, is about 60,000 acres of sand dunes and trails used for ATV riding. The area also features 255 campsites in four campgrounds. It all had been closed since March 26, but the BLM says it is collaborating with Utah and the Central Utah Public Health Department to coordinate the area’s opening.

Social distancing and dispersed camping regulations will be a part of the re-opening, with more details to come in the coming days, the BLM’s Fillmore office says. The recreation area typically receives up to 30,000 visitors on busy spring weekends in a normal year.

Little Sahara will also extend yearlong passes by two months as a result of the closure.

—Andy Larsen

2 p.m.: Utah’s coronavirus hotline has seen a huge call volume

Utah’s coronavirus hotline has received more than 60,000 calls since it was opened in early March.

The line — at 1-800-456-7707 — is run out of the University of Utah. Staff there operate the state’s Poison Control Center and have shifted to answering both calls for that and concerns about COVID-19.

“At our peak call volumes, we have been getting more than 10 times our usual number of calls,” said Jenny Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Health, which oversees the effort.

Those who answer the phones talk to individuals about the coronavirus and their possible exposure. They also provide information on testing.

Several U. medical students whose class schedules were disrupted by the pandemic have volunteered to help answer lines.

The hotline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

— Courtney Tanner

12:45 p.m.: Christmas Box House quarantined a wing of its emergency shelter

The Christmas Box House, an organization that serves children who are victims of abuse, neglect and homelessness, quarantined a wing of its Salt Lake City emergency shelter last month after two of its staff members tested positive for the coronavirus.

No children ever tested positive, said Nicholas Rupp, a spokesman with the Salt Lake County Health Department, which is affiliated with the Christmas Box House.

“When they discovered that one staff person had tested positive, we did a testing blitz of everyone in the facility and we found one other staff person positive,” he said. “We isolated those positive ill people and quarantined the rest of the staff and we had no further cases. That was the public health system doing what it’s supposed to do.”

Around the same time the cases came to light at the Salt Lake shelter, the state began preparing for the potential of an outbreak at the Ogden Christmas Box House, which it operates.

An open records request shows the Division of Child and Family Services spent around $1,900 for bunk beds for children at the Ogden Christmas Box House, likely to promote better social distancing, as well as on $2,000 for food for a quarantine wing.

Ashley Sumner, a spokeswoman with the Utah Department of Human Services, said there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the Ogden location.

The expenditures, she said, reflect the state’s work “with all of our contracted providers to ensure they have what they need to be prepared for an outbreak.”

The Christmas Box House was founded in 1996 by Utah author Richard Paul Evans, who named the charity after his first novel, The Christmas Box, according to the group’s website. The organization operates three Christmas Box House emergency children’s shelters — in Salt Lake City, Ogden and Moab — and eleven “resource rooms.”

While children can contract COVID-19, most evidence shows they don’t get it at the same rate as adults do. And there has yet to be a death of a child due to coronavirus in Utah.

— Taylor Stevens

12 p.m.: Three more Utahns die of the virus; 95 people are currently hospitalized

Three more Utahns have died from COVID-19, the state’s health department announced Thursday, bringing Utah’s death toll to 61.

According to Dr. Angela Dunn, the state’s epidemiologist, one was a woman over 60, who died in a hospital in Salt Lake County; the second was a man over 85, living in a Salt Lake County longterm care facility; the third was from Utah County, a man under 60 who was living in a longterm care facility.

The state now has 5,724 COVID-19 cases, 129 more than the day before.

Twelve more people have been hospitalized since the day before, bringing the total to 476 hospitalizations.

For the first time, the state released the number of people currently hospitalized for the virus. That number is 95. This is part of new data the state has released, which includes risk factors, exposures and other metics.

Right now, most COVID-19 exposures are through members of a person’s own households. As the state opens up, Dunn said she expects the numbers will show that people are now being exposed elsewhere, like at work.

So far, 134,543 people have been tested for the coronavirus. In the last day, 3,541 more tests have been tallied.

The health department reports 2,640 cases are considered “recovered,” meaning it’s been three weeks since they were first diagnosed and they haven’t died.

— Sean P. Means

11:45 a.m.: ‘Legitimate questions’ raised on coronavirus contracts

Gov. Gary Herbert at a Thursday news conference said legitimate questions have been raised about “various contracts” the state entered into after he declared a state of emergency. And said the communication in his office was not as good as it could have been.

The governor was making a reference to ongoing questions about $800,000 spent on anti-malaria drugs that have not been proven to be an effective treatment for the virus. That purchase was championed by some in his administration, a few state senators and tech CEOs. It has since been refunded and is now under review by the state auditor and a legislative panel.

Herbert said his team would answer questions from any legitimate inquiry.

“I think there is much that can be learned from our experience here, and was we’ve gone through — and are yet to go through,” Herbert said.

He said that in fighting the coronavirus, Utah had to “get to work.”

Officials couldn’t wait for federal guidance. Instead, it collaborated with local governments, universities, health care institutions, nonprofits and the private sector. That included on testing and on personal protective equipment.

“The result is that we’re one of the top testing states in the nation,” he said.

He said Utah’s success in responding to this crisis involved “literally thousands” of decisions. These were decisions made “with little time to spare,” and not all were made unanimously.

“Was every decision the right decision, probably not.”

He said, “Certainly with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to say, ‘Well, we should have done this or that or the other thing,’ but given the constraints and uncertainties of the moment and the urgencies that we faced at the time, I stand by the collect decisions that have been made by our state leaders."

Going forward, Herbert said his administration would be “fighting the good fight.” He said they’d answer any “legitimate” questions that come up about how they’re doing it. They would also ask for input from others and learn from past decisions wen making new ones.

“We are deeply committed to be good stewards of the taxpayer funds,” he said.

He said his office will hold anyone accountable for committing fraud, price gouging, or self-dealing with state resources.

Herbert also said he has asked the state to move to a normal contracting process, moving away from the emergency no-bid process that has been involved in the past two months.

— Paighten Harkins

11:35 a.m.: Governor praises Utah’s low death rate

Gov. Gary Herbert opened a news conference by thanking Utahns in these “extraordinary, uncertain, difficult times,” and said in the next few weeks, we could move to yellow risk level, which would remove even more restrictions.

He praised Utah’s testing rates and said the state’s personal protective equipment levels are “robust."

Herbert said the state has the lowest number of deaths per confirmed cases in the U.S. Utah has had 61 deaths out of 5,724 cases so far. That’s about 1%, when the national level is above 5%. He also said, “one death is one too many.”

“We need to continue to keep our vigilance up and make sure that we do what we need to be doing… to keep this trend in the right direction,” he said.

Herbert then moved to the economy and unemployment rates. While they’re high in Utah — a 9.5% drop in employment — the national drop was much higher, he said.

“I think it illustrates the strengths of our economy,” he said.

The governor said, “Unquestionably, this crisis is not over. I like the trend, I like the direction we’re going, but the crisis is still here.”

— Paighten Harkins

11:15 a.m.: University of Utah scientist works of reusable saliva-based test

A University of Utah researcher is working to create a portable, reusable test that anyone could use to check for COVID-19.

Electrical and computer engineering professor Massood Tabib-Azar has received a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to figure out how to make the sensor. Once plugged into a cellphone, the hope is that it would be able to detect the virus in 60 seconds.

Tabib-Azar has previously helped develop a similar prototype for the Zika virus. Now, his work will be converted to the new disease, according to a news release from the U.

“Once you have it connected either wirelessly or directly, you can use the cellphone software and processor to give a warning if you have the virus,” Tabib-Azar said in a statement.

The sensor will be about the size of a quarter and use a drop of saliva to test for the illness. It would then be reusable because the test would destroy the sample with heat.

Tabib-Azar anticipates having a working model in the next two to three months.

— Courtney Tanner

11 a.m.: Two Salt Lake City cops test positive

Two more Salt Lake City police officers have tested positive for the coronavirus, department officials confirmed Thursday.

Both officers are "first responders," Salt Lake City police noted in a news release. One other officer has tested positive, but that person is not considered a first responder.

The officers, along with about 20 other police employees, have been in quarantine since the first officer tested positive on April 27. They'll work from home, police officials say, until they are medically cleared to come back to work.

Chief Mike Brown said in a statement that they have a plan in place in case a large number of first responders are quarantined or get the virus. They haven't had to implement that plan yet, and the chief said they feel confident that they can continue to police the community "without interruption."

“If we see a reduction to first responder numbers due to quarantine, we have a plan to move detectives into first responder roles as necessary," he said. "We continue to do everything possible to protect our employees and ensure the health and safety of our officers and the community.”

— Jessica Miller

10:30 a.m.: Utah one of nine states with testing capacity to start reopening

Research from Harvard University says there are nine states that have the testing capacity needed to start reopening — and Utah is one of them.

The benchmark, as reported by NPR, is based on how much equipment a state would need to test all who are infected by the coronavirus and any close contacts of those individuals. The point is to be able to catch an outbreak before it spreads widely.

According to the calculations, Utah has the supplies to do that. The other eight states are: Alaska, Hawaii, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Harvard researchers at the Global Health Institute say those states can start to reopen as long as they continue to monitor and test for the virus. But they also warn that the areas should combine that data and reopen only after a consistent decline in the number of cases — which Utah has not seen.

"I don't want anybody to just look at the number and say, we meet it and we're good to go," Ashish Jha, director of the Global Health Institute, told NPR.

— Courtney Tanner

10:20 a.m.: Salt Lake City bakery sells ‘thank you’ boxes for nurses

The team at Salt Lake City’s Flourish Bakery — a job training program for recovering addicts — is giving back to front-line workers by selling gift boxes for National Nurses Week.

The “thank you” box costs $24.99 and will be given to nurses who work in the University of Utah’s prenatal clinic for women with substance abuse disorders.

For every two boxes purchased on its website, Flourish also will donate one box to the health care workers.

The boxes will be delivered in person — no shipping charges — on May 12.

“Nurses are on the front lines of relapse and show the concern and compassion needed to begin the road to recovery,” the Flourish officials said in an email to customers.

— Kathy Stephenson

10:15 a.m.: JetBlue losses mount as Utah workers see hours cut

Times are indeed tough when JetBlue promotes that it now is losing just $10 million each day instead of $18 million, which the airline did as it announced its first quarter earnings Tuesday.

“We lowered our cash burn from an average of $18 million per day during the second half of March, to just under $10 million per day by May, excluding proceeds from the Payroll Support Program. We are leaving no stone unturned to protect the financial security of JetBlue,” said Steve Priest, JetBlue’s chief financial officer.

For the first quarter — which included a healthy January, February and half of March before coronavirus restrictions made travel plummet — the airline reported a $268 million loss.

JetBlue bases its customer service operations in Utah, with about 2,000 workers.

To save money, some of them were told that jobs will be preserved but paid hours may be reduced by 15%. Some were given the option of taking the summer off while retaining health care benefits, plus receiving 20 flight vouchers good for two years along with car rental and travel vouchers. Some who chose early retirement were also offered flight and travel perks.

Also this week, the U.S. Department of Transportation gave JetBlue permission to temporarily cut service this summer to 16 cities, including Las Vegas, Denver and Phoenix. In its request for that, JetBlue noted that airline passenger volumes had declined 97% in the week ending April 19, and U.S. airlines were averaging 12 passengers per domestic flight.

— Lee Davidson

9 a.m.: Campaign helps Utah farmers stay in business while helping feed families

The Utah Farm Bureau Federation launched its ‘Farmers Feeding Utah’ campaign Thursday as a way to help farmers and ranchers stay in business, while providing food and donations to families in need.

Individuals, organizations and private companies can donate at FarmersFeedingUtah.org. And 100% of the donations will be used to purchase, process and distribute food produced on Utah farms and ranches to families in need, federation President Ron Gibson said in a news release.

“We’re encouraging all Utahns to help grow a miracle,” he said, “by donating to the ‘Farmers Feeding Utah’ campaign, so we can keep our state’s farm and ranch families producing the local food we all need, and also feed the growing number of families in need.”

The campaign comes in partnership with Utah State University’s Hunger Solutions Institute, other hunger relief organizations and the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food .

This program “will help our farmers and ranchers stay in business at a time when many have seen markets for products either disappear or reduce dramatically,” Gibson said in the release. And “it will reduce disruptions in the supply chain locally and get food to families that really need it.”

— Kathy Stephenson

6:50 a.m.: Historically high unemployment filings are unrelenting

Another 9,057 Utahns filed for unemployment last week, the lowest figure since mid-March when the pandemic first reached the Beehive state but still high in historic terms.

Those residents joined roughly 3.2 million across the country in seeking help for lost work for the week ending May 2, among 33.2 million Americans who’ve filed for unemployment thus far in the health crisis, the Department of Labor reported Thursday.

In Utah, 148,000 have filed for traditional unemployment and at least 14,000 self-employed workers, independent contractors and those in the gig economy filed under a new program.

While filings peaked in mid-March — when Utah saw 33,000 claims in one week — they continue at a weekly clip well above the Great Recession, with estimates that up to one in four of all U.S. workers is now affected.

The latest Department of Labor report also includes nearly 583,699 self-employed workers and those in the gig economy who filed claims last week.

Data on unemployment rates, to be released Friday, is expected to show the nation’s jobless rate above 15%, further evidence of economic damage from COVID-19.

— Tony Semerad