Utah is seeing a statewide ‘sharp spike’ in COVID-19 cases, state’s epidemiologist says

(Jeffrey D. Allred | Deseret News, pool) Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist from the Utah Department of Health, walks to the podium prior to speaking during the COVID-19 pandemic press briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 3, 2020.

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Dr. Angela Dunn, the state’s epidemiologist known for measuring her words carefully, was blunt Wednesday: “We have increased spread of COVID-19 in Utah.”

The continuing “sharp spike” — as the state reported another 295 confirmed coronavirus cases — is “not explained easily by a single outbreak or increase in testing,” Dunn said at the state’s weekly media briefing. “This is a statewide trend.”

Wednesday’s case count was the second largest one-day rise in cases since the pandemic began. The record, of 343 cases, was set on Friday. The state has seen jumps of at least 200 cases each day for the last seven days — an increase of 1,791 cases statewide in a week.

Utah has recorded 10,497 cases of COVID-19 since the first cases were confirmed in March — and just over one in six has been reported in the last week.

Dunn’s assessment came as Gov. Gary Herbert weighs at least two, and significantly different, options for how Utah government and business should proceed now.

One is to extend the state’s public health order — set to expire on Friday — to maintain the low-risk “yellow” health guidelines for most of the state. The only current exceptions are Salt Lake City and the San Juan County communities of Bluff and Mexican Hat, all still at the moderate-risk “orange” category.

The other is to follow the recommendations of the state’s Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission, which unanimously voted Tuesday to adopt a “modified yellow” and what it calls “smart green” safety levels across most of Utah.

A spokeswoman for Herbert said Wednesday that the governor is discussing all options. Dunn said she had no indication of what Herbert will decide or when.

At Wednesday’s briefing, Dunn said it is premature to discuss lowering the safety restrictions. “Based on the data we have seen in the past week, we don’t recommend any jurisdiction in the state going to green,” Dunn said.

The spike is not limited to one part of Utah, Dunn said. Nine of the state’s 13 health districts have seen a growth rate of 15% or more in the past week, she said.

The state started loosening restrictions nearly a month ago — from the high-risk “red” to “orange” and “yellow” levels — “and we knew this would likely increase cases in Utah,” Dunn said.

“It’s not the simple act of loosening restrictions that causes cases to increase,” Dunn said. “It’s what we do, in society and with our actions, that causes COVID-19 to spread more readily.”

She repeated the recommendations public health officials have made for weeks: Stay at least 6 feet away from other people where possible, wear face masks, and stay home if one has symptoms.

Many of the new cases are outbreaks in places of business, where people are in close contact indoors, Dunn said. This follows national trends, she said.

The Utah Department of Health reported Wednesday that four more Utahns had died from COVID-19 in the previous 24 hours, bringing the state’s death toll to 117.

All four were men in Salt Lake County, UDOH reported. One was younger than 60 and was hospitalized at the time of his death. The other three were all living in long-term care facilities; one was between the ages of 60 and 85; the other two were older than 85.

The state reported 28 more people checking into hospitals because of COVID-19 over the last day, bringing the state’s total hospitalizations to 829. There were 108 people with COVID-19 still in hospitals as of Wednesday.

Asked if the increase in cases is a less important statistic than hospitalizations, Dunn noted that hospitalizations and use of the state’s intensive care units are a lagging indicator of the coronavirus’ spread. People are generally ill with COVID-19 for about a week to 10 days before they are hospitalized, and Utah has had a hospitalization rate of about 8%, she said.

“So we can expect that this increase in cases will result in an increase of hospitalizations in about a week,” Dunn said. “So it’s really important for us to see the leading metric in cases and take action accordingly to prevent overwhelming our hospitals.”

Health officials have been concerned, Dunn said, that the outpouring of protesters this week — marching against police violence, sparked by the death last week of George Floyd as he was pinned by a Minneapolis police officer — could exacerbate the spread of the virus.

So far, Dunn said, there are no known positive cases of COVID-19 as a result of the protests. UDOH is watching to see if people at protests report symptoms of COVID-19 in the next week or two, she said.

“Any situation where you have a lot of people gathered for a prolonged period of time, and they’re really close together, that is a situation where we’re, of course, concerned for a COVID-19 spread,” Dunn said.

Dunn said UDOH was aware some members of law enforcement were not wearing face masks at the protests, but many were wearing plastic face shields. “The important thing is to have a barrier between your mouth and other people,” she said.

Another 2,190 people in Utah were tested for the coronavirus in the previous day, UDOH reported. That brings the total number tested to 223,981.

UDOH reports 6,501 people have “recovered” from COVID-19 — which, by the state’s definition, means they have gone three weeks since being diagnosed and are alive.