Utah stays at yellow, Herbert says, after setting another one-day record in new COVID-19 cases

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For the second Friday in a row, Utah set a one-day record for new cases of COVID-19, with a Cache County meatpacking plant accounting for what state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn calls “an ongoing outbreak.”

The continuing spike in cases — the state now has gone over 200 a day for nine straight days — comes as Gov. Gary Herbert extended his order to keep most of Utah at its current risk-assessment level of “yellow,” or low risk. Salt Lake City and the San Juan County towns of Bluff and Mexican Hat will remain at the moderate-risk, or “orange," category.

The Utah Department of Health reported Friday that the state had 439 new cases of COVID-19. That breaks the record of 343 cases set last Friday.

One out of every 3 new cases, Dunn said, came from the Bear River Health District, which covers Box Elder, Cache and Rich counties, with “many of those tied to an ongoing outbreak we have been investigating at a local meat-processing facility.”

Dunn and UDOH don’t specify which meat processor is involved or in what county. The Bear River district’s website notes most of its confirmed cases are in the more populous Cache County, home to Utah State University’s main campus.

Dunn said many workers in that facility “match the demographics” for people known to be at the highest risk for infection. She said she expects to see more COVID-19 cases identified from this outbreak “both at the worksite and in the community.”

“It’s more important than ever," Dunn said, “that employers provide safe working environments for their employees, and have policies in place that not only allow, but encourage, employees to stay away from the workplace when they are sick.”

Brad Gillman, spokesman for Intermountain Healthcare’s Logan Regional Hospital, said the facility has seen a rise in admissions of COVID-19 cases in the past week, “but it is at a manageable level.”

UDOH began a large testing session at the JBS plant in Hyrum last Saturday, collecting up to 1,500 samples, according to department spokesman Tom Hudachko.

Test results are still being processed, Hudachko said, adding that the testing effort is responsible for “a significant portion” of the 158 new cases of COVID-19 reported by the state in the Bear River Health District on Friday.

The Bear River Health Department confirmed Friday afternoon that it had 198 new cases of COVID-19 — 40 more than the state reported for the district earlier in the day. (Those cases likely will be tallied in UDOH’s Saturday report.) Many of the new cases were tied to the outbreak at a meat-processing plant and were found after mass-testing events over the past week.

A spokeswoman for JBS said the Hyrum facility’s nearly 1,400 employees were required to get tested for COVID-19 last week. Those who opted out were sent home to quarantine, heeding guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Testing at the facility started last Saturday and concluded Tuesday. The company has no plans to test further at the plant, the JBS spokeswoman said.

The plant remains open, according to officials with the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, but it is operating with fewer employees and processing fewer animals than its usual 3,500 per day, said Leann Hunting, the department’s director of animal industry. “They are behind schedule but still up and running.”

She said ranchers must now wait longer — three to four days in some cases — to bring in their cattle for processing. Hunting said consumers should not fear a meat shortage. The state has “inspected two new plants this week that will be opening up to take extra work that JBS is not able to handle at this time.”

Ranchers in Utah and surrounding states rely on the facility. Tents have been placed outside, Hunting said, and those going in the building are having their temperature taken.

The Bear River Health Department said its resources are strained and is recruiting health investigators from the Utah National Guard and other health departments — as well as a team from the CDC.

Lloyd Berentzen, the Bear River health director, pleaded with residents “to remain diligent” and “maintain physical distancing when possible, wear a face covering when physical distancing is difficult, stay home when you are sick, and wash your hands often.”

Friday’s new cases bring the total tally of Utahns who have contracted COVID-19 to 11,252. On Wednesday, Dunn reported a “sharp spike” in coronavirus cases that is “not explained easily by a single outbreak or increase in testing. This is a statewide trend.”

Utah’s hospitals also issued a news release Friday, saying that while they supported plans by state leaders to return to normal conditions, they are “very concerned” about the jump in COVID-19 infections.

The Utah Hospital Association also underscored the need for sticking to social distancing, wearing masks and using good hygiene — and, for those with underlying health conditions, staying home.

“Wearing masks greatly reduces the odds of the wearer infecting others,” it said in the release. “But if we all wear masks, we protect each other as well.”

The association emphasized that “we all need to join this effort.”

Three more Utahns have died from COVID-19, UDOH reported Friday, raising the state’s death toll to 120.

All three new deaths were in Salt Lake County, which has now seen 81 fatalities from COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Two of the deaths were men, between ages 60 and 85, who were hospitalized at the time they died. The third was a woman, older than 85, who was living in a long-term care facility.

Herbert’s decree to formally extend the state’s health guidance will run through at least next Friday, June 12.

“Common sense requires keeping our current health risk guidance in place,” the Republican governor said in a statement accompanying the order.

His decision departs from the recommendations this week by a state commission, which had urged moving the state to modified “green” risk levels as rapidly as possible.

The governor said some rural Utah counties might move to “green” before the end of June, based on an evaluation of case numbers and other factors by UDOH.

But, Herbert said, the marked increases elsewhere in Utah since May 28 in both COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations “give us pause.”

“We all want to return to more normal patterns of life as soon as possible," the governor said, “but we also do not want to take a step back in our progress against this disease and our reactivation of the economy.”

The yellow status, Herbert said, “emphasizes taking common sense precautions so that we can safely resume regular social and economic pursuits,” including social distancing and wearing masks in public places, both of which the governor strongly encouraged.

“I know that wearing masks looks and feels different," he said, “but it is an easy, low-cost practice that will help us return to normal.”

Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, a member of the state’s Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission, said the panel did not take issue with Herbert’s decision. Under the law creating the commission, the governor can choose not to follow its suggestions as long as he explains his reasoning.

“I don’t see this as a major departure with what we’ve asked him to do,” the Layton Republican said Friday. “He’s looked at the data and there’s been an uptick, and he’s probably hesitating.”

Adams, who announced this week that he recently tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies but never experienced symptoms, said the panel recommended moving to a modified, or “smart” green, status based on a “more holistic” look at wide-ranging data related to COVID-19.

He said that included some concerning numbers on Utahns seeing dire health consequences from delaying preventive medical care unrelated to the virus while under stay-at-home directives.

The commission, Adams said, sought to adopt an approach urged by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and others that gives weight to guarding public health and vital economic activity, while also protecting the medically fragile and other vulnerable groups.

“I believe we can do both in Utah,” Adams said. “So our effort is to try to be smart. If we’re smart, we can protect the vulnerable and keep our economy going.”

Twenty more Utahns have been hospitalized with COVID-19, the state reported Friday, bringing the current number of people hospitalized to 114. The state has had 870 people hospitalized since the pandemic began.

UDOH reported that 4,690 more people have been tested for COVID-19 since the previous day’s report. That brings the total in Utah to 232,197 — with a total positive rate of 4.8%.

Of those who have contracted COVID-19, the state reported Friday that 6,788 have “recovered” — which the state defines as still being alive three weeks after being diagnosed.

— Tribune reporter Kathy Stephenson contributed to this report.