Utah reaches a coronavirus milestone: More people have beaten the virus than currently have it

(Ivy Ceballo | Deseret News/pool) Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, listens to questions asked remotely during a daily COVID-19 media briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, May 11, 2020.

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For the first time, the number of Utahns believed to have recovered from the coronavirus outnumbers the people who are still battling the disease.

According to the Utah Department of Health’s count Monday, there are 3,114 active cases of COVID-19, and 3,181 people are considered “recovered” — meaning, by the state’s definition, they received a positive diagnosis for COVID-19 three weeks earlier and are still alive.

The total number of COVID-19 cases in Utah reached 6,362, with 111 new cases reported Monday. That’s a growth rate of 1.8%, which Dr. Angela Dunn, the state’s epidemiologist, took as positive news.

“We’ve definitely maintained a plateau for a couple of weeks, and that’s a good sign,” Dunn said at the state’s news briefing Monday.

Dunn also announced that one more Utahn — a hospitalized Salt Lake County man, older but under 60 — had died from COVID-19, raising the state’s death toll to 68.

The Salt Lake County Health Department, on its website, listed three more deaths after the state’s Monday announcement, which would bring the county’s death toll to 48 and the state’s tally to 71.

Between May 5 and Monday’s report, the state health department has recorded 18 deaths from COVID-19 in Utah.

“Death is definitely the most tragic part of any pandemic, especially this one,” Dunn said. She noted, though, that “death is the most lagging metric we can track. It’s what happens at the end of a COVID-19 illness, potentially.”

The statistics that inform public health policy in a pandemic, she said, “are those metrics that happen before deaths, so we can prevent additional deaths.”

Such metrics include the overall case count, which is growing at a slower rate at the end of last week into this week, Dunn said. That, she added, “is a good sign going forward. It’s also a sign that a decrease in deaths could follow.”

Another indicator the state health department monitors is the transmission rate, or the average number of people someone with COVID-19 is likely to infect. The goal is to get below a transmission rate of 1, meaning that a person with the virus is likely to give it to one other person.

A transmission rate of 1, Dunn said, is “how you know that it’s getting under control. That means your case rate is decreasing.”

According to state models, Dunn said, the transmission rate in Utah varies from 1.1 to 1.3 — getting closer to the goal, but some way to go.

The lowered transmission rate, Dunn said, is a result of residents following the state’s guidelines for social distancing, improved hand-washing, and the wearing of face masks. “The further we are away from other people, and the less people we come in contact with," she said, “the less ability we have to infect others.”

The transmission rate, Dunn said, isn’t the only measure of success against the virus. It is part of a “holistic picture” state officials use in their recommendations for assigning the color-coded safety levels — “red” for high risk, “orange” for moderate risk, “yellow” for low risk — to the 13 area health departments that have jurisdiction over their parts of the state, she said.

“We certainly want to make sure we’re not moving jurisdictions into, for example, ‘yellow,’ when they’re starting to see an increase in their number of cases, regardless of the transmission rate,” Dunn said.

Utah officially moved from “red” to “orange” on May 1. Though some officials in southwest Utah had requested their safety level be moved to “yellow,” Dunn said there are no plans to lower the safety recommendations from “orange” anywhere in Utah this week.

Because of Utah’s relative success at reining in the spread of coronavirus, Dunn said, the state has not deployed its public health “strike teams” in several days. One such team was sent to Utah County on May 1 to help mitigate an outbreak at a long-term care facility there. Another team went to the Navajo Nation in San Juan County to help with a surge in testing at a mobile facility there.

“I know that our case counts have been low and our death rates have been low,” Dunn said, “because we’ve taken very early and proactive responses here in Utah.”