Utah must reduce coronavirus cases before fall to avoid ‘preventable deaths,' state epidemiologist warns

(Spenser Heaps | Deseret News, pool) State Epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn speaks at a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, June 11, 2020.

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Utah’s coronavirus outbreak is going in the wrong direction to remove restrictions, the state epidemiologist said Tuesday — and if things don’t turn around before autumn’s cold and flu season begins, the crisis could become way worse.

“We are definitely in the acceleration phase," said Dr. Angela Dunn, referring to the recent rise in cases. “We definitely need to turn that around before the fall. Otherwise, we’re going to continue to see excess infections and preventable deaths.”

Another 329 coronavirus cases were reported Tuesday, continuing a weeks-long trend of elevated infections, the Utah Department of Health reported.

As long as that’s going on, it’s not realistic to focus restrictions only on specific “hotspots," Dunn told legislators at a committee meeting focused on the state’s response to the pandemic.

“The goal is to get back down to that controlled point where we can focus on hot spots and we can target specific areas that have outbreaks,” Dunn continued. “Unfortunately, we’re not at that place in our pandemic right here in Utah. We’re actually seeing increasing community spread, which causes public health [officials] to have to use more widespread interventions.”

Several legislators on the Health and Human Services Interim Committee focused on the generally low risk of serious illness facing people without underlying conditions. But Dunn warned against underestimating how common those conditions are: obesity, advanced age, and heart and lung disease for example.

About half of all Utah adults are at risk of serious illness from coronavirus, she said. And safely isolating them from the other half is not realistic while there are so many cases in which contact tracers can’t find the source of the patient’s infection, Dunn said.

“We want to make sure anybody [who] gets COVID-19, we can identify specifically where they got it from,” Dunn said. “When you get this unknown of, ‘Well, they could have gotten it here or here, or we have no idea,’ that indicates ... that we’re not controlling the spread.

“We know that our high-risk individuals are being infected by low-risk individuals. The lower we can get our community transmission, the safer our high-risk individuals will be and the less unnecessary illness and death we will have in Utah.”

Meanwhile, Dunn said, the pressure on contact tracers is growing. When the state was in its most restrictive, or “red,” phase, most coronavirus patients had about three to five contacts.

“Now it is between 20 to 30 contacts, so the amount of time it takes to do a complete case investigation has increased exponentially,” Dunn told lawmakers. “And in order for us to really control this pandemic we’re going to need to have that workforce to be able to do it.”

Based on White House guidance, reopening should be based on adequate testing and contact tracing, as well as a two-week decline in cases, Dunn said. But health officials also are looking at the percent of tests that come back positive — a measure by which Utah looked pretty good until restrictions eased. From March to May, 3% to 5% of Utah’s tests came back positive.

“In the past month, we’ve shot up to 8% to 10%, and that indicates there’s more spread in the community,” Dunn said. “I would love to see that drop down to 3%. That would give me confidence that we really have this under control.”

Now is the time to assert that control, she said. COVID-19 patients are starting to fill intensive care units, especially in Salt Lake County, Dunn said. Previously, the state was handling 90 to 100 hospitalizations; as of Tuesday, 143 patients were occupying hospital beds, the state health department reported.

And the pressure will mount in the fall, Dunn said.

“Flu season always stresses out our health care system. Now we’re going to have flu season on top of COVID,” Dunn said. “So we really need to do everything we can right now to protect our healthcare capacity so everyone can get the care they need.”

She said the state is specifically focusing on employers because 78% of new cases are happening at work sites.

“That will [likely] be increased as we open up the economy more and more,” Dunn said. Health officials are trying to persuade employers not only to test, but to ensure workers have sick leave and may stay home if they become ill.

She said the state also needs to keep focusing on its vulnerable populations, particularly low-income and minority communities.

“We know that a lot of our spread has happened within our Hispanic and Pacific Islander populations,” Dunn told the committee. “They all have similar pockets of populations who don’t have the means to isolate or quarantine appropriately.”

The threat of coronavirus also makes typical flu preparations even more crucial. Flu shots need to be promoted heavily “to make sure that we decrease that strain on the healthcare systems as much as we can.”

But some legislators worried the state wouldn’t “flatten the curve” in time for flu season.

“We hear people talking about an uptick in the fall and my goodness, I’m seeing an uptick right now in a time frame when we’re supposed to be reopening safely," said Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City.

The state reported two new deaths Tuesday, bringing Utah’s death toll to 145. The two new victims were Salt Lake County men between ages 60 and 85 who were hospitalized when they died, according to the Utah Department of Health. One of the men lived in a long-term care facility and the other did not.

The new cases reported Tuesday bring the state’s total for the past week to 2,378 cases reported June 10 to 16. That’s slightly higher than the previous seven-day total of 2,357 cases, reported June 3 to 9.

Of the 14,937 Utahns diagnosed with the coronavirus, 8,470 are considered “recovered” — that is, they have survived for three weeks after they were diagnosed.