Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing free access to critical stories about the coronavirus. Sign up for our Top Stories newsletter, sent to your inbox every weekday morning. To support journalism like this, please donate or become a subscriber.
As Gov. Gary Herbert and leaders of the Utah Legislature touted plans to reopen the state’s economy past the coronavirus pandemic, new data from public health officials Wednesday served as a reminder that the virus isn’t finished with Utah.
Utah had the third largest one-day increase in COVID-19 cases Wednesday, with another 407 Utahns confirmed to have contracted the virus — and another four Utahns dying from it, the Utah Department of Health announced Wednesday.
“The risk of exposure to COVID-19 is higher than ever in Utah,” said Dr. Angela Dunn, the state’s epidemiologist, in a news conference. She urged people to continue to practice social distancing, frequent and proper hand-washing, using hand sanitizer and wearing masks.
Three of the new fatalities were in Salt Lake County, and were people between the ages of 60 and 85, Dunn said. One, a man, was in a long-term care facility, the other two — a man and a woman — were hospitalized at the time of their deaths. The fourth person who died was a man, between the ages of 18 and 60, who lived in Garfield County, and was hospitalized.
Those four people bring the state’s death toll from COVID-19 to 149. Dunn said UDOH follows national guidelines to determine whether a person’s death is attributable to COVID-19, rather than other factors. The rule of thumb, she said, is whether “that individual, if not for COVID-19, would not have died.”
When asked if Utah has “flattened the curve” in COVID-19 cases, Dunn said, “unfortunately, we have not hit that plateau.” Utah has confirmed more than 200 cases per day for the last 21 days; before that streak, the state had topped 200 a day just once since the pandemic began.
The new cases reported Wednesday bring the state’s overall case count to 15,344.
Herbert used Wednesday’s news conference to unveil volume 4 of the “Utah Leads Together” economic plan, much of which will be voted on in Thursday’s legislative special session. He said public health officials had expected a rise in COVID-19 cases because of “more abundant association,” of people seeing more of each other, during the state’s gradual reopening.
“Infection rates are not the only criteria” to watch, Herbert added, noting that the number of hospitalizations and the mortality rate are also key indicators.
The state reported 29 more people hospitalized with COVID-19 since the previous day’s report. As of Wednesday, Dunn said, 147 patients still are in the hospital. The total number of hospitalizations since March is 1,102.
Labs in Utah have processed tests for another 2,992 people in a day, with the day’s rate of positive cases at 13.6%. The total number of Utahns tested since the pandemic began now sits at 278,692.
Dunn said the state is not using the COVID-19 antibody test produced by Chembio, which was recently used at drive-up testing stations in Draper, Riverton, Bluffdale and Vineyard. Local governments had secured the Chembio tests through newly registered company RapidScreen Solutions — but the Food and Drug Administration revoked certification of the test Tuesday, citing problems with its accuracy.
RapidScreen Solutions screened 3,430 people from 63 Utah cities over seven days, and found 406 people (11.8%) who tested positive for one or both antibodies, a statement from the city of Draper said. Of the positive results, the city said, 47.4% reported no history of COVID-19 symptoms.
Salt Lake County continues to be particularly hard hit by COVID-19, according to Wednesday’s numbers. In addition to three deaths, the state’s most populous county had 16 new hospitalizations and 193 new cases.
And demographic figures show Utah’s minority communities suffering disproportionately from COVID-19. Just over two out of every 1,000 Caucasians have contracted the virus, compared with 14.5 out of every 1,000 Hispanic and Latino people in Utah, 12 out of every 1,000 Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, just over 7 out of every 1,000 African Americans, and 6.4 out of every 1,000 American Indian or Alaska native.
The Latino community — which represents 14.2% of the state’s total population — has had 42.5% of the state’s total COVID-19 cases. White people, who make up 78% of Utah’s population, have had 34.4% of the state’s COVID-19 cases.
One example of that disparity is the outbreak at the JBS Beef Plant in Hyrum, where many of the employees are refugees and migrants — and 287 of the nearly 1,400 employees who were tested for COVID-19 came back with a positive result. Dunn said the outbreak in Hyrum has made the leap from plant employees to the community at large. “It is kind of a larger-scale response up there,” she said.
“We know this virus doesn’t treat everyone the same,” said Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and president of the Utah Senate. Adams added that the economic plan the lawmakers will discuss Thursday is a way that “we can open the economy and still protect the medically frail.”
Herbert said the economic plan carries “the simultaneous goal of saving people’s lives … and protecting people’s livelihoods.” He added, “it’s a false choice to say we can only do one and not the other.”
Adams expressed concern about the number of medical fatalities in the state, outside of COVID-19. “Perhaps some people are hesitating getting preventive medical care,” Adams said, adding that hospital visits are down, “but the severity of those visits are up.”
Herbert and other officials urged Utahns to continue to take personal responsibility to protect themselves and their communities.
“For those who care about their neighbors, wear a mask,” Herbert said. He cited a Salt Lake Tribune/Suffolk University poll, published early this week, that found 73% of likely voters in the upcoming Republican primary see wearing a mask as a sign of respect.
However, Utah is not considering stricter rules to enforce mask-wearing, Dunn said; officials instead are expecting “people to do the right thing.”