Utah sets one-day record for new COVID-19 cases and passes 200 in its death toll

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Shoppers at Harmon's Market in downtown Salt Lake City are presented with a sign requiring masks upon entry on Thursday, July 2, 2020, as the coronavirus continues to surge.

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Utah reached two unwanted milestones Wednesday in the coronavirus pandemic, setting a one-day record for new cases — at 722 — and crossing the 200 mark in the state’s death toll.

And the state’s continuing surge has made it one of the world’s top 25 spots for the most confirmed new cases over the past week, the New York Times reported. It drew on government, hospital and Johns Hopkins University data, adjusted for population size, in an analysis that considered each U.S. state as if it were a country.

Utah’s new cases “further reinforce the need for Utah residents to be taking the appropriate precautions to protect themselves and those around them,” the state’s epidemiologist, Dr. Angela Dunn, said in a statement.

She repeated the call from state officials: “Please, wear a mask in public, practice physical distancing, stay home if you are sick, and wash your hands regularly. We are all part of the solution.”

But Utah’s top legislative leaders issued statements Wednesday opposing a possible statewide mandate that would require residents to wear face masks.

The seven fatalities reported by the Utah Department of Health (UDOH) pushed the state’s overall death toll to 201 Utahns. The new deaths were:

• Two Utah County men, both between ages 45 and 64; one was hospitalized when he died, the other was not in a hospital.

• A Utah County woman, between 65 and 84, who was hospitalized when she died.

• A Washington County man, between 65 and 84, who was a resident of a long-term care facility.

• A Salt Lake County woman, over the age of 85, who was a resident of a long-term care facility.

• A Salt Lake County man, between 65 and 84, also a resident of a long-term care facility.

• A San Juan County man, between 45 and 64, who was in a hospital when he died.

Utah’s most populous county, Salt Lake County, set its own one-day record, with 349 new cases. The county has recorded 13,343 cases since the pandemic began — about half the state’s total, even though Salt Lake County holds about a third of Utah’s population.

Wednesday’s new cases raise the seven-day average — the figure used by public health officials to detect rising or falling trends — to 577 per day, the highest the average has been. The seven-day average topped 500 on June 25, but had seemed to plateau around 550 per day for more than a week.

The new record in daily confirmed cases came from a comparatively low number of tests — just 2,911 processed since the day before, UDOH reported.

Utah had topped 100 deaths on May 26, when three new fatalities pushed the state’s total to 101.

In late June, as Utah continued to see new cases in a post-Memorial Day wave, Tomas Alejandro Lopez Castañon began showing symptoms of COVID-19. He had trouble breathing, and was shaking and shivering on June 29, his family said.

(Photo courtesy of Byron Lopez) Tomas Alejandro Lopez Castañon, 83, of North Logan, died June 30, 2020, from the coronavirus, according to his family.

Tomas Lopez had been isolating in a basement apartment as eight others living in the family home fell ill, beginning with his son, Byron Lopez. Tomas Lopez had pulmonary fibrosis and already used an oxygen tank to help him breathe; the family knew the virus would be fatal if he contracted it, his son said.

The younger man services computer networks and is able to work from home, and he assumes he contracted the virus shopping for groceries, he said. He isolated himself and then the others who got sick, and it looked like Tomas Lopez had escaped the disease.

But at about 3 a.m. on June 30, as his mother grew concerned, Byron Lopez took his father to Logan Regional Hospital. He wasn’t allowed inside, he said, and he never saw his father again. Tomas Lopez died that afternoon at age 83.

“It was crazy how the COVID all of the sudden just took him out,” Byron Lopez said.

Tomas Lopez reflects trends Utah doctors have seen in the state’s fatal cases, said Dr. Nathan Hatton, a pulmonary and critical-care physician at University of Utah Hospital and an associate professor of medicine at the U.

One constant has been “the older you are, the higher the mortality rate,” Hatton said. According to UDOH, 142 of the 201 Utahns who have died from COVID-19 were 65 or older.

Another 51 were between the ages of 45 and 64. Six were between 25 and 44. The remaining eight were either younger than 24, or their ages were not known.

Older patients, Hatton said, tend to have other conditions — such as cardiovascular problems and other health concerns caused by “wear and tear” on the body — that can contribute to more severe outcomes when they catch COVID-19.

Hatton, who puts in regular shifts in University Hospital’s ICU, said roughly half of the COVID-19 patients who become sick enough to be hospitalized are Latino. UDOH’s statistics also show that Latino patients represent nearly 42% of the state’s COVID-19 cases, while Latinos make up just 14.2% of Utah’s population.

One reason, Hatton said, is like the Lopez family, many Latinos live in multigenerational homes. So if one person gets the virus, he or she could spread it to their kids, parents and grandparents.

The Lopez family immigrated from Guatemala in 1986. There, the family belonged to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They moved to northern Utah to be with relatives who were already there.

Tomas Lopez worked on a dairy farm. Then he was a fabricator at Logan Coach Trailers until his retirement. The father and grandfather lived with his wife, Natividad Edelmira Lopez, and Byron Lopez and his wife in children in North Logan.

Byron Lopez says he’s not angry at anyone for his father’s death, but he is frustrated that his father was flown without the family’s consent to McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden. He’s concerned about the cost of that decision, he said, when his father was dying anyway.

Other factors in the disproportionate impact on Utah’s Latino community are that many Latinos have jobs considered “essential” that can’t be worked from home, and that many face barriers in accessing health care, Hatton said.

When the first COVID-19 cases reached University Hospital, Hatton said doctors had little data to guide them on treatment. “We were just literally guessing,” he said.

Since then, nearly every COVID-19 patient at the hospital has been part of one clinical trial or another, Hatton said, as doctors learned which medications might work against the virus.

One treatment that has worked consistently is a little old-school, Hatton said: “Proning,” putting a patient on his or her belly.

Usually, a hospital patient is lying face-up — and, with a respiratory illness like COVID-19, that means fluid builds up in the back of the lungs. Laying a patient stomach-down at regular intervals distributes that fluid, helping reduce long-term damage to any one part of the lungs.

Utah’s hospitals saw 25 more people hospitalized with COVID-19, UDOH reported Wednesday. As of Tuesday — the last day available, because hospital reports lag behind case counts — there are 199 people currently in hospitals with the disease. There are 76 people in intensive care units, the lowest number in two weeks.

UDOH reports that 15,178 people are considered “recovered” from COVID-19 — which, by the state’s definition, means surviving three weeks after diagnosis.