After a wave of record spikes in Utah cases, here’s the COVID-19 state of the state

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Families enjoy Wheeler Farm for the first time since the coronavirus, Friday, May 22, 2020.

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“By the end of the month, we’ll have an idea of what impact opening parts of our economy had on the spread of the virus in Utah.”

That was the final sentence of our last “state of the state” article, in which we summed up what exactly was happening with the coronavirus in Utah at the beginning of May. A month later, much has changed. For one, rather than “red,” most of the state is in the “yellow” coronavirus risk category — with the exception of Salt Lake City, Bluff and Mexican Hat, which remain at “orange.”

The picture of how the virus has affected our state has also changed: The virus has become more widespread, but we’ve made economic strides. Let’s break it down.

Cases and deaths

As of Saturday, the state has reported 11,798 cases in Utah, which means that more than half its coronavirus cases have come in the past 30 days. Of those, 890 were hospitalized, and 121 have died.

Utah's epidemic curve. (https://coronavirus.utah.gov/case-counts/)

As you can see, we’ve set new records in coronavirus cases over the past couple of days. We do know the source of many of those new cases: a meat-processing plant in northern Utah. The Utah Department of Health collected about 1,500 samples from the JBS plant in Hyrum, which was responsible for a “significant portion” of the new cases found over the weekend. Still, even if the Hyrum cases were taken out, the numbers are still increasing in other parts of the state.

Meanwhile, the George Floyd protests started eight days ago. The incubation period — the time between infection and symptoms — for the coronavirus can be anywhere from two to 14 days, but has a median of 5.7 days. Tests take at least an additional day to be reported, sometimes more. In other words, it is unlikely that the increase in cases recently is due to the protests, though we’ll be able to see if and how that changes during the next week or two.

Another way to look at the growth is Utah’s effective contagion rate. At Rt.live, Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom gives algorithmic estimates of the current effective contagion rate — the number of people each infected person in turn infects on average — for each state.

Utah’s current contagion rate is just above 1 at 1.08. That actually gives Utah the third highest rate in the nation. As the virus declines in many states, Utah is one of only a handful with expanding case tallies right now.

In the nation, Utah ranks 25th per capita in terms of cases, but things are better from a fatality point of view: We rank 46th in deaths per capita, same as the state did in May.

Interestingly, where testing has improved in most parts of the nation, it has significantly fallen in Utah. This past week, an average of 3,570 people per day were tested. Compare that to the peak of testing in Utah, where more than 4,700 people per day were tested. It’s unclear if we are missing more coronavirus cases than before or doing a better job of finding potentially ill people.

In Utah, 116 people are currently hospitalized with the virus. That’s near the record high for the state, but it remains well below Utah’s coronavirus hospital capacity. The University of Utah alone said it had up to 600 beds potentially ready for COVID-19 patients, though that figure is from two months ago.

There is no nationally accepted definition for recovered COVID-19 patients, so Utah made up its own, guessing that anyone who had not died after three weeks of testing positive had bounced back from the disease. That estimate says 6,939 people have recovered so far.

Who and where?

Of all Utah cases, 8.2% of them send a person to the hospital. Older people are much more likely to end up in a hospital. Of those ages 65 to 84, 25.7% are hospitalized, and of those 85 and over, 27.2% of cases are hospitalized. Meanwhile, 11% of those from 45 to 64 were hospitalized, and 4% of all other ages were.

Eighteen of the 121 deaths in Utah so far were from those 59 or younger. The ages of four of the deaths are unknown.

But, thanks to Utah’s younger population, 70% of those who made it to the hospital were under 65.

Most of Utah’s cases come from Salt Lake County, 6,086 in total. But on a per-capita basis, three smaller counties are harder hit by the virus. In San Juan County, 1 in 48 residents have tested positive. In Wasatch and Summit counties, it’s about 1 in 96. In Salt Lake County, it’s 1 in 190 people.

The demographic differences are stark. Though Utah is 78% white and 14% Latino, there are more Latino cases (4,806) in Utah than white people with the virus (4,186). More than 1 out of every 100 Latinos in Utah have been infected. The case rate for blacks, American Indians, and Pacific Islanders is also much higher than the state average.

Social distancing and the economy

Data from Google’s Community Mobility Reports shows how people have started to participate more in their communities as weather has improved and government restrictions have eased.

Google’s Community Mobility Reports for Utah. (https://www.google.com/covid19/mobility/)

The number that jumps out is the number of park visits: up over 100% from pre-pandemic baselines. That makes a lot of sense, because of warming weather.

Visits to retail and restaurant locations aren’t back to normal, but they have certainly increased since the beginning of May. Grocery and pharmacy visits are also up, and even above pre-pandemic baselines. Meanwhile, people are also going to work slightly more than they did before — and staying home slightly less.

Meanwhile, more Utahns are back to work. According to data collected by the employee management company Homebase and reported by the Opportunity Insights team from Harvard, employment was down 15.2% compared to pre-pandemic levels at month’s end. At the beginning of May, it was down 27%, so things are better, though not back to normal. Furthermore, employment levels are higher in Utah than they are nationally.


Projecting the future

Back at the beginning of May, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predicted Utah would see 281 deaths by month’s end, though it had a wide uncertainty interval between 62 and 1,154 deaths. Clearly, the state was in the lower end of that spectrum.

With the past month of data, the IHME has tightened up and lowered its overall fatality projections. It gives a median estimate of 211 deaths in Utah by July 1, with a smaller uncertainty interval of between 174 and 270 deaths by then.

So what did we learn over the past month? Well, what we thought was going to happen, happened: Loosening governmental restrictions did seem to result in a rise in cases. The spike didn’t happen immediately but has really ramped up over the past week or so.

Of course, additional sick people, hospitalized people, and deaths reflect a human toll. Each new case is likely to send at least one person home from work, and those hospitalized and dying represent real suffering in our state. We have to acknowledge that, at this point, the rise has not been catastrophic for Utah’s health system. But the recent rise — and the acceleration in that growth — in cases is undoubtedly concerning.

Given that the rates of those who have the virus are higher than ever, it makes no sense to open the state to “green,” Utah’s lowest risk level, as a state task force created by the Utah Legislature recommended.

Predicting July might be even harder than predicting June was: Will June’s protests lead to a further spike in cases? We know that outdoor transmission is relatively rare, but grouping people in crowds frequently leads to superspreading events. Which factor will outweigh the other? With a new virus, we just don’t know.

As we keep an eye on the problem, we should all remember: The virus hasn’t gone away. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Andy Larsen is a Salt Lake Tribune sports reporter who covers the Utah Jazz. During this crisis, he has been assigned to dig into the numbers surrounding the coronavirus. You can reach Andy at alarsen@sltrib.com or on Twitter at @andyblarsen.