Utah officials battle coronavirus outbreaks at a Salt Lake City veterans home and on the Navajo Nation

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dustin Jansen, director for the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, speaks at a news conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 28, 2020.

Of the 72 residents of the William E. Christoffersen Salt Lake Veterans Home, more than half — 41 — have tested positive for COVID-19, according to updated numbers released on Thursday.

Seventeen employees at the Salt Lake City home also have been diagnosed, said Gary Harter, director of the state’s Department of Veterans and Military Affairs.

“To the families: The care and health of your loved one is our top priority,” Harter said. “... We’re doing everything we can to protect residents and staff.”

Infections broke out last week at the home, and Harter discussed the latest number of infections at a weekly coronavirus news conference with state officials.

At the briefing, officials also described the state’s efforts to help the Navajo Nation, which has been “ravaged” by the coronavirus, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said. The reservation, which has a population of around 174,000, had 158 deaths as of Tuesday.

By comparison, health officials reported Utah, which has a population of 3.2 million, had a total of 106 deaths as of Thursday.

“This pandemic has hit all of the tribal lands hard, but the Navajo Nation has especially been suffering at high numbers,” said Dustin Jansen, executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs.

Utah reached 8,921 cases on Thursday, according to the Utah Department of Health (UDOH). That’s 215 more than Wednesday — the largest single-day increase reported since the pandemic began.

UDOH reported the deaths of two Utah County men; one between 60 and 85 years old; the other between 18 and 60. Both were hospitalized at the time of their death.

One of the COVID-19 deaths reported Wednesday — of a resident of a long-term care facility — has been removed from the total count, health officials noted, and the case is being investigated further.

To contain the outbreak at the William E. Christoffersen Salt Lake Veterans Home, officials are taking a new approach, Harter said. Twenty residents and four employees had tested positive as of Tuesday, and the infected residents had been moved to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, near the nursing home, on Foothill Drive.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gary Harter, executive director of Utah's Department of Veterans and Military Affairs, at a news conference in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 28, 2020.

But residents were tested again on Tuesday night, Harter said, and the case numbers had doubled. Now, he said, patients will stay in their rooms at the nursing home.

The home is operated by a private contractor, Avalon Health Care Group.

“Avalon engaged with us in developing a path forward,” Harter said. Testing will continue, and visitors will remain prohibited from the home, as they have been since March, he said.

Of the patients who have tested positive, 25 residents and 15 employees were asymptomatic, Harter said. None have become critically ill. “Some of this speaks to the insidious nature of asymptomatic spread,” Harter said.

Also at the news conference, Herbert addressed concerns that most of San Juan County, which overlaps with the Navajo Nation, has officially moved to the “yellow” or low-risk alert level under his response plan.

Herbert said most of the confirmed cases in the county are concentrated on sovereign tribal lands where Navajo Nation leaders have set more stringent health advisories and protocols than anywhere else in the state, including imposing weekend and nightly curfews.

“We would strongly encourage any Utahns that live close to the border or on the reservation to follow all the tribal health directives,” Herbert said. “They’re trying to get a handle on this, and we’re trying to give them some assistance. But again if you’re on the Navajo Nation lands … you need to follow their directives, not the Utah directives, which could be different.”

As of Thursday, San Juan County had 283 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, 30 hospitalizations and five deaths. The city of Blanding, which has had a far lower case rate than the Navajo Nation, reported its first death this week.

Jansen thanked tribal leaders across Utah for remaining in close contact with the state over the last several months. He outlined the efforts the state has undertaken to support tribes, including grant money given to the Utah Navajo Health System, donations of personal protective equipment and the deployment of mobile COVID-19 testing units to tribal lands.

“Twice [the mobile units] have gone out to the Confederated Tribes of the Goshutes reservation,” Jansen said. “They have gone out once to the Ute Mountain Ute White Mesa community. And on four occasions, they have gone out to the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation.”

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said that after the mobile testing efforts, San Juan County now leads the state in per capita tests. “That will allow the [Navajo] Nation and health professionals to respond and to stop the spread of the virus,” he said.

Statewide, Utah has conducted 203,507 tests as of Thursday, with a positive rate of 4.4%. There were 97 positive COVID-19 patients still in hospitals Thursday, brining the total number of hospitalizations to 734.