As Utahns venture out under yellow coronavirus risk level, high-risk groups still need to stay behind

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Customers visit Snider Bros. Meats in Cottonwood Heights. High-risk groups are being told to go to public places only if necessary and, if need be, shop at stores only at odd hours — even as much of Utah shifts to a yellow risk level.

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While much of Utah prepares for Saturday, the first day of looser rules of behavior during the coronavirus pandemic, health experts say it’s important to remember loved ones in high-risk groups — those more likely to get sicker if they catch COVID-19.

“While the rest of the world is starting to test the waters with less restrictions, we’re asking this group to kind of stay behind, and that’s hard,” Dr. Angela Dunn, the state’s epidemiologist, said Friday. “The thing we need to recognize here is: What are their needs, and what can they do?”

On Saturday, much of Utah — save for Salt Lake City, West Valley City and Magna, along with Grand, Summit and Wasatch counties — will slide from the moderate-risk “orange” safety level to the low-risk “yellow” level.

The change, announced Thursday by Gov. Gary Herbert, allows gatherings of up to 50 people, dine-in service in restaurants, club and youth sports, and allowing businesses to open — if they take reasonable precautions, such as social distancing and encouraging the use of face masks.

Herbert said Thursday that people in high-risk groups should still take strict precautions.

Friday’s statistics from the Utah Department of Health show the virus remains very much present. The state reported 164 new COVID-19 cases, for a total of 6,913 across Utah. Two more Utahns — a woman over 60 in a Salt Lake County long-term care facility and a San Juan County man, older but under 60, who had been in the hospital — died, upping the state’s death toll to 77.

Nearly 3,100 more people were tested for COVID-19, with a total positive rate of 4.2%, the health department reported Friday. It said 102 people were in the hospital for COVID-19, including eight who were admitted since the day before. In total, 586 people in Utah have been hospitalized for the virus.

The most common criteria for being in a high-risk category is being older, over 65, or living in a long-term care facility. Then there are “underlying conditions” — chronic lung disease, moderate to severe asthma, serious heart issues, severe obesity, diabetes, or kidney or liver problems. Having a compromised immune system — because of cancer treatment, smoking, marrow or organ transplants, HIV/AIDS or prolonged use of corticosteroids or other medications that tax the immune system — also puts someone in the high-risk column.

Dr. Todd Vento, medical director of Intermountain Healthcare’s infectious diseases telehealth service, emphasized that people in high-risk groups are no more likely to catch the coronavirus than anybody else. Being “high-risk” means, he said, that “if they get the virus, they’re at higher risk of having a worse outcome or having a more severe illness.”

Dunn said that as Utahns start living under slightly relaxed guidelines, “the hard part is that we’re asking those who are at high-risk or are caregivers of that group to continue living” as they had under the stricter “orange” safety guidelines.

Dunn acknowledged that “it’s a really challenging ask that we’re requiring of these groups.”

The state’s guidelines for high-risk groups, Dunn said, include "adhering to social distancing, and only going out to any public place if it’s necessary.” They should go grocery shopping “during the odd hours, or go into the pharmacy only when it’s not crowded. … Really be mindful of where they are and how many people are around them.”

For their psychological well-being, Dunn said, it’s also vital for people in high-risk groups “to make sure they’re getting outside in the open air, and spend time with loved ones and family members virtually. … Developing your own support network is really important.”

The health department has a list of guidelines for high-risk groups. It also has a hotline — 877-424-4640 — for people in high-risk groups who live at home and need help following the state’s guidelines, such as meals, grocery or medication delivery, or transportation to appointments. The hotline is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Mondays through Fridays.

Vento’s advice for loved ones of a person with an underlying condition is to “act as if they’re the ones who have it [the underlying condition]. Since they want to enjoy these things in life with their household [member] who happens to have a condition that they don’t have, they should just start acting like they have. … It becomes sort of a family, or team, effort.”

For multigenerational households, where children and grandparents live in the same place, “it’s really important for the whole family to be mindful of where they are, and their exposure, and to take extra precautions in terms of social distance.”

A family sheltering in place isn’t practical, Dunn said, when society is reopening.

“People need to learn how to function with a higher sensitivity to transmission,” she said, by making hand hygiene, cleaning high-touch surfaces and wearing masks part of their daily routine.

“If everyone in the state does that,” Dunn said, “we’re going to protect the vulnerable population.”