Another 339 Utahns come down with COVID-19, the lowest daily count in six weeks

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) People wearing masks on Main Street in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, June 23, 2020. Mask wearing is recommended during the current orange phase of Utah's COVID-19 effort in Salt Lake City.

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Utah reported its lowest daily tally of new coronavirus cases — 339 — in six weeks, as the number of tests being completed also has been dropping, the Utah Department of Health said Wednesday.

Six more Utahns have died from the disease, raising the state’s death toll to 292 people.

Wednesday’s case count of 339 is the lowest for the state since June 16, 43 days earlier. It dropped Utah’s rolling seven-day average for daily cases to 516. That’s approaching the goal Gov. Gary Herbert set back on July 9, to get the seven-day average — the metric used by public health officials to monitor trends — down below 500 by Aug. 1, which is Saturday.

A week ago, the seven-day rolling average was 669 cases a day. That’s a drop of 22.9%.

And in the past seven days, the state has processed an average of 5,255 tests a day. That’s 25.8% lower than the average daily number of tests — 7,046 — for the previous seven days.

The lower numbers of tests, said UDOH spokesman Tom Hudachko, “continue an overall trend of plateauing, or even declining, case growth that we first identified in mid-July.”

Lower-than-normal test numbers in the last few days, possibly related to the Pioneer Day holiday on July 24, are “something we need to keep an eye on,” Hudachko said. There were similar declines in testing in the days after the Fourth of July holiday, he noted, and the department has heard from several testing sites that demand has dropped in recent days.

The rolling seven-day average for the percentage of positive lab tests was at 9.6% Wednesday, UDOH reported.

With the lower numbers of reported cases, Hudachko added, “we are moving in the right direction, but nobody is spiking the football just yet.”

As skepticism has grown over government handling of COVID-19 data — such as the Trump White House ordering hospitals to send their statistics to the Department of Health and Human Services instead of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — Hudachko defended UDOH’s handling of the state’s numbers.

“We have maintained the highest levels of data integrity and transparency since Day One of this response,” Hudachko said. “We post more data on our public-facing website than almost any other state in the country. And, in fact, our public data dashboard has been upheld nationwide as an example for other states to emulate.”

UDOH also reported that as of Tuesday, there were 208 people hospitalized in Utah with COVID-19. Hospitalization numbers lag behind case counts by a day.

Four of Utah’s new deaths were in Salt Lake County. One was a man older than 85, who had lived in a long-term care facility. Two were women, between ages 65 and 84, who also lived in long-term care facilities. The fourth from Salt Lake County was a man, also between 65 and 84, who was not hospitalized when he died.

Salt Lake County accounts for 166 of the state’s COVID-19 fatalities, or just under 57%. The county, the state’s most populous, contains just over a third of Utah’s population.

The other two fatalities were a Utah County man, between 45 and 64, who was in a long-term care facility, and a Weber County man, between 65 and 84, who was hospitalized when he died.

Utah’s per capita death rate of COVID-19 is just a fraction of the country’s death rate — a difference that is partly explained by the state’s relatively younger population, a demographic research paper released Wednesday by the University of Utah concluded.

As of July 14, Utah had a per capita rate of seven deaths to COVID-19 for every 100,000 people in the state, wrote Mike Hollingshaus, senior demographer for the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, in the U.‘s David Eccles School of Business.

Compare that with the U.S. per capita rate of 41.3 deaths to COVID-19 per 100,000.

Only about a quarter of that difference, Hollingshaus wrote, can be explained by the fact that the median age in Utah is 31.3 years, while the national median age is 38.4 years.

As a “thought experiment,” Hollingshaus calculated that if Utah’s median age were the same as the national average, Utah’s death rate would be 10.1 people dying from COVID-19 per 100,000 population.

Going the other way, if the U.S. median age were at Utah’s level, the national per capita death rate from COVID-19 would drop to 28.3 deaths per 100,000 — an improvement but still four times Utah’s rate.

So what else explains the difference? Hollingshaus listed a slew of possible reasons, some good and some bad. He cited such technical factors as measurement error and the lag times states have in reporting case numbers.

Also, systemic inequalities — like the way racial and ethnic minorities tend to suffer disproportionately from COVID-19 — are themselves not distributed equally, so some states deal with those inequities more than others.

One interpretation of the data is that Utah is among those states that might have public policies that provide better prevention, response and treatment to the disease. That’s a reading “often preferred by states that perform well in the rankings,” Hollingshaus noted.

Hollingshaus warned against complacency. “These numbers are continually growing, and if we’re not careful,” he wrote, “Utah could teeter on the cusp of a death wave that eventually rivals or even surpasses the patterns seen for the U.S.”

Since the pandemic began, 39,194 people in Utah have come down with COVID-19. According to UDOH, 26,643 of them are considered “recovered,” defined by health officials as surviving three weeks after diagnosis. A total of 518,191 Utahns have been tested since the pandemic began.