With more than 10,000 active COVID-19 cases in Utah, doctors urge caution on holiday weekend

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) People wearing masks on Main Street in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 23, 2020.

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As Utah tops 10,000 active coronavirus cases for the first time, doctors are warning residents to try their best to limit their exposure to the virus during the Fourth of July weekend.

“Based on our experience with Memorial Day and the clear fatigue that we’re sensing in the community, I think it’s unrealistic to expect that we will see dramatic changes in behavior,” said Dr. Brandon Webb, an infectious disease specialist at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray.

“But I’m also hopeful that community members are more and more aware that our case counts have gone up and community transmission has gone up,” he added. “So I’m hopeful the community can pull together and celebrate our freedoms by being respectful of each other and being prudent.”

Epidemiologists believe that one in every 50 to 100 asymptomatic people along the Wasatch Front is shedding COVID-19 — which means exposure should be expected in any crowd of more than 50 people, from big family reunions to grocery stores, Webb said.

With 554 new cases reported on Thursday, there have now been 23,270 Utahns diagnosed with COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. Of them, 13,076 are considered “recovered” — that is, they have survived for more than three weeks after testing positive. That left 10,194 active cases on Thursday.

And four more Utahns have died from COVID-19, including two who apparently were not receiving hospital care when they died.

Two Salt Lake County men, one between the ages of 25 and 44 and the other age 65 to 84, were not hospitalized when they died, according to UDOH.

The vast majority of Utahns who have died from the coronavirus have died in hospitals or at long-term care facilities. Because of privacy concerns, health officials did not disclose the reason two of the deaths announced on Thursday occurred outside of hospital care. But Salt Lake County Health Department spokesman Nicholas Rupp said that some patients — especially those with underlying conditions — can decline too rapidly to seek help.

“I think we’ve seen among some [people] that they don’t have to be seriously ill to suddenly start struggling to breathe ... and then they pass in the night while sleeping, due to the COVID infection,” Rupp said.

The third Utahn who died was Cache County resident Tomas Alejandro Lopez Castañon, 83, according to a published obituary and his family’s social media posts. Lopez, who died Tuesday, lived in North Logan. Angie White, epidemiologist at Bear River Health Department, did not identify Lopez by name, but said the man who died went to a hospital with breathing problems and died that same day.

And Summit County announced a fourth Utah death Thursday afternoon, of a man over the age of 65. It is the county’s first death from COVID-19.

The three new deaths bring the state’s death toll from COVID-19 to 176.

There were 3,028 test results reported on Thursday, with 18.3% testing positive. It’s the second day in a row with positive test rates higher than 18% — something that has only happened on two other days before this week.

New hospitalizations remained high, with 29 new admissions reported on Thursday and 184 patients currently occupying Utah’s hospital beds. In total, 1,505 Utahns have been hospitalized for COVID-19.

Doctors and health officials have been warning that hospitals may not have room for a large spike in new cases after the holiday, and urged Utahns to take extra care in their Independence Day celebrations.

“We had a COVID-19 surge after Memorial Day. Our hospitals can’t handle another one,” state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn warned in a tweet Thursday.

Two local governments in Utah added new mask requirements just before the weekend began. Grand Country and the city of Springdale joined other areas of the state with a mandate for face coverings.

Gov. Gary Herbert on Thursday granted requests the city and county made for the mandate, according to a FOX 13 report. Grand County includes two national parks — Arches and Canyonlands — as well as the town of Moab, popular with tourists. Zion National Park is located not far from Springdale.

The mandates go into effect Friday. Salt Lake and Summit counties also have mask mandates. The Salt Lake County Department of Health on Thursday extended its mandate through Aug. 20.

Utahns should wear masks to any gatherings and try their best to keep a 6-foot distance from others, Webb said.

“There are ways to still be together and enjoy the summer but in a safe way,” Webb said. “If people are taking this seriously and keeping the 6-foot distancing ... and if they’re outside especially, if there’s excellent airflow, and if people are wearing masks, transmission rates could be very, very low,” Webb said.

Some activities are safer than others, Webb said. Frisbee and baseball: Good. Fireworks viewing: Fine if you avoid crowds and observe wildfire restrictions.

Potlucks and buffet-style picnics: Probably not a good idea.

“Not to throw shade at picnics, but I think it’s good to recognize that eating together is higher-risk activity than some other things that people can do together,” Webb said. “Just eating in general is not a low-risk activity because we’re touching our faces and you can’t wear a mask while you’re eating.”

Households should bring their own food and drinks to gatherings, rather than sharing food, to avoid exposing one another to the virus, he added.