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Utah’s Department of Health deserves some credit.
Look, the state’s response to the coronavirus hasn’t been perfect. TestUtah.com has been the source of additional testing but also some significant inconsistencies — and somehow went from a private project to being funded by the state in a hurry. Utah bought $800,000 of hydroxychloroquine, then had to ask for a refund. And I think you can argue that the state decided to open up too soon from an epidemiological point of view, though I understand that business realities played a big role.
But those are largely the decisions made by officials in the governor’s office. The health department itself? It’s done a good job. We’re 31st among U.S. states in terms of cases per capita, and 46th in deaths. We’re also 7th in per capita testing. Only Alaska and Utah are in the top 10 in testing availability and low fatalities.
Critically, I also think the department has done a nice job of informing the public. When the Utah Jazz landed at Salt Lake City International Airport in the wake of Rudy Gobert testing positive, state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn was there, waiting to talk to the team about the virus and answer any questions. She did a great job — I know because I was there. Since then, her regular news conferences have been straightforward and informative.
The department has also put reliable stats on its website, coronavirus.utah.gov, every day at roughly the same time, giving all of us a chance to track this disease. As simple as that sounds, it’s a task many states have failed at.
This week, the health department added new data about the state of the virus and how it spreads — and this information will be critical to our policy-making moving forward. It is also information you can track to get a sense of where we stand. Here’s some highlights.
The phrase “flatten the curve” became ubiquitous at the beginning of the pandemic as one of the key goals of the shutdown: keep the total number of infected people as low as possible. As a result, we hopefully wouldn’t see overrun hospitals forcing doctors to make awful life-or-death choices, as happened in Italy.
So maintaining a reasonable number of hospitalizations is key. For weeks, the state has reported how many people were ever hospitalized for the virus, but what we didn’t know was how many people were currently staying in the hospital — that is the key stat. In addition, we didn’t know how many people were using limited resources like beds in intensive care units and ventilators.
That information has been added to Utah’s website. Right now, 94 people are in the hospital due to confirmed COVID-19.
As you can see, that number has stayed pretty flat for the past few weeks. And 94 people is a number we can handle pretty easily — though there are also 78 people currently hospitalized as COVID-19 patients under investigation, according to the state.
Still, there are 5,849 hospital beds in Utah, though obviously we have to save most of them for people who need care for things not related to this pandemic. The University of Utah alone says it could handle up to 600 hospitalizations due to COVID-19, though, so we have a lot of unused capacity — let’s hope we keep it that way.
The health department also released information on ICU beds and ventilator usage — though it doesn’t update daily like the total number of hospitalizations. So far, 166 Utahns have been sent to the ICU, while 75 of those people had to go on ventilators. That’s 2.9% and 1.4% of total cases so far, if you’re curious.
You might be wondering your odds of going to the hospital depending on your age. Utahns with confirmed cases over 65 have gone to the hospital in about 25% of cases, while those 45-64 have gone 11% of the time. 25-44 year olds have gone in 5% of cases, and 15-24 year olds have gone just 2% of the time. Of those under 15, there have only been two hospitalizations so far.
Utah also released data on how many people with the virus, and how many people hospitalized, suffer from various health conditions or risk factors.
There are some conditions with big swings. What stands out to me is the big leap in cardiovascular risk factors and for those with diabetes — they make up a big chunk of the hospitalized amounts.
On the other hand, what doesn’t take a big jump? Smokers. That probably can be explained by age alone. More old people have smoked in their lives than young people — they’ve had more life to live. You’d expect smoking to be a contributing risk factor, but it’s just not, for reasons we don’t fully understand yet.
The one preexisting condition I wish the state listed here is obesity. That seems to be an important risk-factor from the data we have, but Utah doesn’t seem to be tracking it. About 28.4% of Utah adults were obese according to 2018 data.
Source of exposure
From an epidemiological point of view, there might be nothing more important than tracking the source of the disease. Where are Utahns getting it from, and what can we do about it?
Here’s the results of the Utah investigations of the roughly 6,000 cases so far:
Remarkably, despite that number of cases, the health department has a pretty good idea of where a carrier got it from. Over 60% of cases were traced to a known carrier.
Of those cases, most of them were in the same household, likely a family member. But 25% of them were social contacts, while only 4.7% happened in the workplace. While there were 68 cases tracked to two Utah County businesses, that indicates that such spread hasn’t been very common so far.
When it hasn’t been a known contact, the second most likely explanation is “In-state Without Known Contact.” That’s the feared “community spread,” and it’s been confirmed in 16% of cases so far. Now, there are about 18% of people for whom the source of their infection is either under investigation or unknown. For those tricky cases, community spread may end up being the most likely answer.
Still, those are pretty low percentage — in most places, expected community spread is a lot higher. The tracers have done a good job.
About 4% of cases so far have been from those who traveled; we haven’t seen any of those cases since the beginning of April, according to Utah’s data. As Utahns have stayed home, they’ve avoided risky travel to hotspot areas. And 2% of cases have been in healthcare settings: 113 total so far. Support every nurse and doctor you know.
Cases by Utah area
You also might want to know how common COVID-19 cases have been in your neighborhood. The state added that information to their website this week, too.
The Census Bureau uses the term “small area” to describe how it divides the map into pieces for its research. Still, you can look at this map to see how many cases you’ve had in your “small area” of choice in the past 14 days.
You can zoom into individual areas by going to coronavirus.utah.gov/case-counts/ and click on “Incidence and Epidemic Curve.”
As we know, Salt Lake County has seen a significant number of cases, especially in the north and west side. Utah County’s north and southwest side has too. Among more rural areas, both Wasatch County and San Juan County have been the site of significant outbreaks over the past 14 days.
Remember “Schoolhouse Rock,” the long-running TV show that taught kids about the wonders of English, math, science, and even American government? I legitimately love “Schoolhouse Rock.” If there was one overarching theme of the show, it’s this: Knowledge is power.
As the state compiles and releases more information on the disease, we all acquire knowledge. Thanks to that, we have the power to make the right decisions about COVID-19. Let’s do it.
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.