With surge in San Juan County, 10 more Utahns dead from COVID-19

(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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Utah reported 10 new coronavirus deaths on Tuesday — the largest single-day rise in COVID-19 fatalities since the beginning of the pandemic.

Six of the deaths reported Tuesday were residents of San Juan County, which has had the highest per capita case rate in the state since May. Three were residents of a long-term care center in Blanding. They died on Saturday after at least 50 cases of the virus were confirmed among the facility’s residents and staff.

The three San Juan County deaths not tied to the nursing home outbreak were related to delayed reporting, with one each from May, June and July.

Native Americans have experienced a higher mortality rate from the coronavirus than any other racial or ethnic group, and the majority of San Juan County cases have been concentrated on the Navajo Nation, according to the state’s coronavirus database. The overall case rate for the Navajo Nation has been in decline since May, however, while the surrounding states of Utah and Arizona have experienced a rise in cases.

In San Juan County, more active cases were reported off the reservation than on it for the first time last week. Bluff Mayor Ann Leppanen said the town sent a request to Gov. Gary Herbert on Monday asking that public mask use be required in the small tourist-oriented town, which is located near Bears Ears National Monument.

Leppanen said she fears that if the county doesn’t take more measures to stem the outbreak, including making sure the public health department has enough resources to improve its contact-tracing efforts, a complete shutdown may be necessary again, which could force local businesses to close permanently.

A county coronavirus task force that included elected representatives, the sheriff’s department and public health officials met three times per week at the beginning of the pandemic, Leppanen added, but it later switched to weekly meetings. On June 29, a decision was made to stop the meetings altogether.

“If this flare up [at the long-term care center] in Blanding ... doesn’t call for meetings, I don’t know what does,” Leppanen said.

In total, 226 Utahns have died from the coronavirus. The six whose deaths were reported in San Juan County are:

  • Two men older than 85, who lived in a long-term care facility.

  • A man age 65 to 84, who lived in a long-term care facility.

  • A man age 65 to 84, who died in a hospital.

  • A woman, older than 85, who died in a hospital.

  • A woman, age 65 to 84, who died in a hospital.

Four other patients died elsewhere in Utah:

  • A Weber County man, age 45 to 64, who lived in a long-term care facility and died in a hospital.

  • An Iron County woman, older than 85, who died in a hospital.

  • A Cache County woman, age 65 to 84, who lived in a long-term care facility.

  • A Utah County man, age 65 to 84, whose place of death was not disclosed.

Hospitalizations were up again Tuesday, with 38 new admissions reported statewide. That brings the total for the past two weeks to 444 new hospitalizations — the highest 14-day total since the pandemic began. There were 176 patients currently hospitalized as of Tuesday, the Utah Department of Health reported.

UDOH reported 448 new cases, the lowest single-day number in nine days. The average of new cases reported for seven days ending Monday was 636, down from the previous day’s rolling average of 656 — but still far from Herbert’s goal of less than 500 new cases per day.

Herbert has said he may impose new restrictions if new infections do not meet that goal by Aug. 1.

Meanwhile, a state initiative to order millions of masks ended Tuesday as Utah reached its total allotment of masks.

“A Mask for Every Utahn” was designed to provide free face masks to Utahns who didn’t have them. The state of Utah bought 2.3 million face masks, sending 1.24 million to households who ordered them, 750,000 to K-12 schools, and 140,000 to grocery stores.

The state will distribute the rest to vulnerable populations through community organizations, nonprofits and county health officials. The program has focused on underserved areas and places with high numbers of cases.

While Tuesday’s case numbers are lower than previous days, reporting delays may be eclipsing a continuing increase in new cases. For instance, the Weber-Morgan Health Department, whose numbers are slightly ahead of those reported by the state, tallied 90 new cases in Weber County on Tuesday — the county’s biggest single-day increase yet.

According to data from local health departments, four counties in Utah are averaging more than 20 new cases daily per 100,000 residents for the past week: San Juan, Salt Lake, Washington and Weber.

Utah’s positive test rate was at 10.2%, up slightly from Monday’s reported positive rate of 10.1%. Tuesday’s figure is from the week ending July 8, the most recent date for which data is complete, health officials have said.

On Tuesday, Utah’s Democratic senators and representatives pleaded with Herbert to issue a mask order for all long-term care facilities in the state — which may have been the result of a misunderstanding. Updated guidance was released in April and masks have been required for staff in long-term care facilities since then.

Confusion around the state’s mask mandate for staff at long-term care facilities spread over the weekend after Derek White, a spokesperson for the Four Corners Regional Care Center in Blanding, told The Salt Lake Tribune that staff members were not required to wear masks unless there was a confirmed case of the virus in the facility. The center is the site of the current outbreak.

But Joel Hoffman, director of the Bureau of Health Facility Licensing and Certification at the Utah Department of Health, said the spokesperson was referencing state guidelines that have been outdated since April. Staff members at long-term care facilities are required to wear masks while working, Hoffman said.

It’s not clear to what extent Four Corners Regional Care Center required its staff to wear masks. White walked back his previous statements to The Tribune in an interview with KUER on Monday, and said the facility had been following the updated state guidelines since April.

Numerous Facebook photos of unmasked staff posted by the Blanding care center over the past few months have been deleted since the outbreak occurred. White did not return a request for comment Monday.

Hoffman said the Blanding facility passed a surprise state inspection on June 23.

The state senators and representatives who sent the letter to Herbert noted that health care providers in Utah have already asked for a statewide mask mandate for all Utahns, not just those in long-term care facilities.

Explaining the three San Juan County deaths from May, June and July that were reported Tuesday, Kirk Benge, director of the San Juan Public Health Department, said the area’s deaths can be slower to record.

“Locally, many of our deaths have occurred outside of the state of Utah, which can significantly slow the process down,” said Benge, who noted most San Juan County residents who have been hospitalized due to the coronavirus have been transported out of state.

The process is further delayed when the county receives medical records that do not list COVID-19 as the cause of death, Benge said, which was the case with the May death.

Of 30,478 patients who have tested positive in Utah, 18,111 are considered “recovered” — that is, they have survived for at least three weeks after their diagnoses.