Utah adds another 495 coronavirus cases as governor moves rural areas to green

(Steve Griffin | Deseret News, pool) Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, listens to a question during the daily COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 17, 2020.

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In Utah’s fight against the coronavirus, Thursday was a tough day: The state’s health department announced a large number of new cases statewide, Salt Lake County’s death toll hit a tragic milestone, and another resident of a Salt Lake City veterans home has died.

Another 495 people in Utah have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and three more Utahns have died from the disease, the Utah Department of Health reported Thursday.

It’s the second-largest one-day increase in COVID-19 cases and ups the state’s total to 15,839 Utahns with COVID-19 since the first cases were confirmed in Utah in March.

Dr. Angela Dunn, the state’s epidemiologist, warned Utahns against complacency as the coronavirus continues to spread.

“People are having COVID fatigue, and they’re not taking it as seriously,” Dunn said Thursday during a Facebook Live interview with KSL radio host Jeff Caplan.

Late Thursday, Gov. Gary Herbert issued an executive order to move nine rural Utah counties from the low-risk “yellow” safety designation to the “green,” or “new normal” safety level, effective Friday at 1 p.m.

The order puts Beaver, Daggett, Duchesne, Emery, Garfield, Millard, Piute, Uintah and Wayne counties in the “green” category. Kane County, along the Utah-Arizona border, was moved to “green” last Friday.

In a statement, Herbert noted that the nine counties cover a lot of land, but only 3% of Utah’s population — and have some of the state’s lowest COVID-19 case counts and hospitalization rates. “The rural lifestyle they enjoy is defined by wider physical distancing, and smaller, less densely populated towns,” Herbert said.

Salt Lake City, the state’s biggest city, remains at the moderate-risk “orange” safety level. The rest of the state is staying at the “yellow” category.

Two of the deaths the state reported Thursday were in long-term care facilities, and between ages 65 and 84; one was a Salt Lake County woman, the other was a man in Washington County. The third person was a San Juan County man, between ages 45 and 64, and it’s not known whether he was in a hospital or a long-term care facility when he died.

These fatalities bring the state’s death toll from COVID-19 to 152.

Meanwhile, nearly 1 in 7 residents at a Salt Lake City veterans’ home have died due to the coronavirus, the home’s operator reported.

The William E. Christoffersen Salt Lake Veterans Home, where the virus has been spreading for weeks, announced its 10th resident had died from the coronavirus — one more than the number of deaths the home had reported Monday. Just over 70 people were living at the home, near the U.S. Veterans Affairs campus, when the outbreak began in March.

There have been 51 residents and 29 employees diagnosed with COVID-19, Avalon wrote in a news statement.

Another 3,993 people were tested for COVID-19, compared to the previous day. Overall, 282,685 tests have been completed since March.

Among those who have recently tested positive for COVID-19 is former Utah first lady Mary Kaye Huntsman, she announced in an Instagram post Thursday.

The one-day record for new cases, 546, was set June 6, which Dunn said was during the height of the outbreak at the JBS Beef Plant in Hyrum.

Salt Lake County, the state’s most populous county, had 274 new cases Thursday, according to state figures — more than half the statewide tally.

Unlike notable outbreaks in other parts of the state, there’s no single event or location responsible for the rise, said Nicholas Rupp, spokesman for the Salt Lake County Health Department.

As Utah businesses are reopening gradually, Rupp said, some people are ignoring guidelines such as social distancing and wearing masks.

“We have a segment of the population that is not doing their part, frankly,” Rupp said. “We need everybody in the community to take this seriously.”

The death of the Salt Lake County woman reported Thursday means the county has now seen 100 of its residents die from COVID-19. That’s two-thirds of the statewide death toll; the county is home to just over a third of Utah’s residents.

Some of the disproportionate number of COVID-19 deaths in Salt Lake County, Rupp said, comes from the fact that the county is home to many long-term care facilities — and those facilities have been hot spots for the virus.

Eighteen more people were hospitalized for COVID-19 since the day before, UDOH reported, and, as of Thursday, there were 150 people still in hospitals. In total, 1,120 Utahns have been hospitalized with the disease.

In her Facebook Live interview, Dunn continued to deliver the public health message she and Herbert have stressed for weeks: Wear a face mask when out in public.

Dunn said people who argue cloth masks are useless are wrong. “Any covering over your nose and your mouth will prevent large droplets from going from you to infecting someone else,” Dunn said. If everyone wore masks, she said, it could reduce the spread of the virus by as much as 80%.

The increased number of cases — Thursday is the 22nd day in a row that the one-day case level has been above 200 — isn’t merely attributable to more people being tested for COVID-19, Dunn said.

The rate of positive test results has risen, she said, sometimes to 8% or 10% a day — compared to 5% or lower during the earlier days of the pandemic. “That means,” she said, “we’re seeing an increase in spread.”

Editor’s note • Mary Kaye Huntsman is a sister-in-law of Paul Huntsman, chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.