Utah’s COVID-19 death toll crosses the 100 mark

Among those killed by Covid-19 in Utah are, top row, l-r: Kathleen Hardy, Moises Alonso Chavez, Manuela Nieto Palacios and Todd Andreason. middle row, l-r: Mark Kendall, Donna Saracino, Ralph Faulkner and Silvia Deyanira Melendez. bottom row, l-r: Janice Blodgett, Robert Garff, Vasiliki "Bess" Vetas and Keith Marshall.

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Sixty-six days after the first coronavirus fatality in Utah, the state’s death toll from COVID-19 crossed over 100, the Utah Department of Health announced Tuesday.

Three new fatalities were reported since Monday, UDOH said in its daily update. That brings the total number of Utahns who have died from COVID-19 to 101.

The three people added to the tally were all between the ages of 60 and 85, and all had been hospitalized at the time of their deaths. Two were men from Salt Lake County; the third was a woman from San Juan County.

Those characteristics are typical of the 101 Utahns who have died from COVID-19, with an average age of 73.9 and a median age of 74. Nearly 75% of Utahns who have died from the coronavirus were older than 65, according to state data. Just over 80 percent of patients who died had at least one pre-existing condition and 94.1% were deemed “high risk," the state reports.

And most have been from Salt Lake County, which has recorded 69 deaths. Utah County has reported 14, and San Juan County has third-highest county total, at five.

The loss of more than 100 people to COVID-19 in less than 10 weeks has changed the work of Utah’s funeral directors, said Kurt Soffe, co-owner of Jenkins-Soffe Funeral Chapels, which operates locations in Murray and South Jordan.

The most difficult part of the job during the pandemic, Soffe said, “is helping families pay tribute to their loved ones.”

For much of March and April, public health officials urged people not to gather in groups of more than 10 people. Soffe tells families that they can postpone larger gatherings for up to six months, “at a time when the government tells us it’s safe to reassemble.”

Years ago, Soffe’s company started offering to have funerals streamed on the internet, for the benefit of loved ones living out of town, but “very few took advantage of it,” he said. As the pandemic began, Soffe said, other funeral directors have called “to assist with their services, because we can webcast the funeral.”

Sometimes, families will split up into multiple rooms, with fewer than 10 members in each. They watch the service on a video hookup, and enter the main room in shifts to pay their respects to the deceased.

Families of the departed also are adapting to life during a pandemic. “Never would I have thought that I would conduct a funeral and look out into a sea of surgical masks,” Soffe said. “It’s just been that way for quite some time. … I’m not sure there ever is going to be what we used to have as normal.”

In the early days of the pandemic, Soffe said, funeral directors feared that they might offend families if they entered a home wearing personal protective equipment, such as masks, gloves and face shields.

“That was short-lived,” Soffe said. “Many of the families were very, very supportive and also encouraged us as we told them what we needed to do in order to protect us and protect them.”

Funeral homes are considered essential businesses, Soffe said, and employees are first responders — but often have a hard time getting the necessary protective equipment. “Many of our suppliers, their supply was exhausted quick,” Soffe said. “As we went to secondary and even governmental [sources], we basically had to educate them that we were included in those lists of essential [businesses] and first responders.”

The United States is approaching its own grim milestone. According to Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center, which operates a comprehensive count of COVID-19 cases worldwide, nearly 99,000 Americans had died from the virus as of Tuesday — and the country is expected to cross the 100,000 threshold this week.

While Utah’s weekly deaths rose to the teens and have stayed there, the state has seen far fewer fatalities than most other states. As of Tuesday, only 10 states had fewer deaths than Utah did — and only four states had fewer deaths per capita, according to data compiled by The New York Times.

And of 44 states that reached 50 deaths by the time Utah did, on May 3, only five have taken longer to double and reach 100.

But trends can change quickly, as other states have shown after they surpassed 100 deaths.

For example, it took 45 days after New Hampshire’s first fatality to reach a death toll of 100. But then the state surpassed 200 deaths just 17 days later.

By contrast, it took Oregon almost the same amount of time — 47 days — to surpass 100 deaths. But in that state, fatalities slowed down after that. Nearly a month later, the number of deaths there remains under 150.

Oregon does not appear to be the norm, though. Of the 37 states that had surpassed 100 deaths by May, all but two took less than four weeks to double to 200. And all but four reached 300 deaths less than four weeks after they surpassed 100 deaths.

Colorado, for instance, reached 100 deaths on April 3. Four weeks later, 775 Coloradoans had died. As of Tuesday, Colorado’s death toll from coronavirus was more than 1,300.

The mortality rate for COVID-19 in Utah stood at 1.2% on Tuesday — lower than all other states except South Dakota, where only 1.1% of known coronavirus patients have died.

The highest death rates in the country have been in Michigan and Connecticut, where more than 9% of patients diagnosed with COVID-19 have died. Connecticut has tested a slightly higher percentage of its total population than Utah has, while Michigan has tested at a slightly lower rate than Utah — but all three states have higher rates of testing than most other states.

The Utah Department of Health said Tuesday that 2,124 more people have been tested for COVID-19 since Monday. The total number of tests is 198,592, with a positive rate of 4.3% of all tested.

Utah added 99 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 since Monday, bringing the total to 8,620. The new cases represent a daily rate increase of 1.2% from the day before.

Four more people have been hospitalized with COVID-19 since Monday, UDOH reported. As of Tuesday, there were 98 people with positive cases in the hospital. There have been 696 hospitalizations due to the coronavirus since the pandemic began.

And, UDOH reported, 5,346 people have recovered from COVID-19. The state’s definition of “recovered” is going three weeks since being diagnosed with the virus and not dying.

Most of the people who have died from COVID-19 in Utah have done so in anonymity.

Health departments do not release their names because of patient privacy laws. When families run obituaries, only a few mention COVID-19 as a cause of death.

The Salt Lake Tribune knows the names of 28 of the 113 Utahns who have died from the coronavirus.

Robert Rose, 79, Bountiful

Silvia Melendez, 24, West Jordan

Robert Garff, 77, Salt Lake City

Donna Saracino, 83, Millcreek

Janice Blodgett, 85, Salt Lake City

Todd Andreason, 54, Bluffdale

Lee Ford, 67, Midway

Mark Kendall, 63, Salt Lake City

Keith Marshall, 93, Millcreek

Ralph Faulkner, 91, Salt Lake City

Allen Dee Pace, 68, Willard

Carol Watts, 88, Salt Lake City

Carole Ann Lambert, 82, Sandy

Vivian Raye, 85, Millcreek

Kathy Silveira, 57, Tooele

Manuela Nieto Palacios, 86, Orem

Dona Harmon, 91, Millcreek

Moises Alonso Chavez, 77, Orem

Ann Louise Barber Fletcher, 98, St. George

Kathleen Hardy, 72, Millcreek

Ruth Jean Stephens, 92, Salt Lake City

Hiltrud Saje, 91, Salt Lake City

Adele Langton, 97, Salt Lake City

Afton Krupa, 85, Roy

Waltraut Johanna Mertens, 96, Salt Lake City

Vasiliki “Bess” Souvall Vetas, 87, Salt Lake City

Carol Ann Moody, 71, Sandy

Joseph Ortell Kingston, 68, Taylorsville

The rest are known only by those close to them. With their help, The Tribune would like to tell their stories. We are asking families, friends and loved ones to help us identify every Utahn who has died from the coronavirus.

Please send information and photos to the Tribune, at coronavirus@sltrib.com.

Help us turn a statistic into stories, to focus not on a number but on the people Utah has lost.

(Updated June 1, 2020.)