Utah’s death toll from COVID-19 hits 300; another 502 cases reported Thursday

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Melissa Fryer and Naarah Kristensen wear masks as they cross the street in downtown Salt Lake City, on Wednesday, July 29, 2020.

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Utah’s death toll from COVID-19 hit 300 with nine new deaths reported Thursday as 502 new cases of the disease were confirmed, the Utah Department of Health said.

Thursday’s new cases brought the rolling seven-day average — the metric public health officials use to measure trends — to 508 per day.

“We have gone from a plateau to a decrease in total cases,” the state’s epidemiologist, Dr. Angela Dunn, said at the weekly COVID-19 media briefing. “With school starting soon, it is really important that we continue on this trajectory.”

The average is approaching the goal Gov. Gary Herbert set earlier this month, to get the state’s rolling average down to 500 cases a day by Aug. 1, which is Saturday. But, he said, Utahns “ought not to be letting our guard down.”

“We’re moving in the right direction,” Herbert said. “I’m not ready to spike the football and say, ‘That’s good.‘”

The reduction in new cases has been accompanied by a reduction in testing, Dunn said; health officials have said they aren’t certain of the reason, but it may relate to last week’s Pioneer Day holiday.

“Over the past three to four days we have seen ... a drop-off in our tests. So that’s why we need to be very cautiously optimistic about our drop in case counts,” Dunn said. “Our percent positivity has remained around 9.5%. We aren’t seeing huge surges, but it is something for us to keep our eye on, especially in this coming week as we finish out that incubation period from Pioneer Day weekend.”

Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious disease doctor with Intermountain Healthcare, said in a video chat Thursday that while the statewide trends are moving in the right direction, there are still too many patients in the intensive care unit at Intermountain Medical Center, including young patients who have had to be placed on ventilators.

There were two COVID-19 deaths at the hospital Wednesday, he said. One patient had been there for “over two months,” Stenehjem said; another man had been there four weeks.

“Our hearts just go out for their families that couldn’t be there,” Stenehjem said. “They couldn’t be there when they passed away, and they were on Skype or on FaceTime, and it’s not the same.”

The nine new deaths reported by the health department Thursday are:

• A Davis County man, between age 65 and 84, who was hospitalized when he died.

• A Davis County man, older than 85, who was under hospice care.

• A Juab County woman, between 65 and 84, who lived in a long-term care facility.

• A Salt Lake County man, between 45 and 64, who lived in a long-term care facility.

• A Salt Lake County man, older than 85, who lived in a long-term care facility.

• A Salt Lake County woman, between 45 and 64, who was hospitalized when she died.

• A Salt Lake County man, between 65 and 84, who was living in a long-term care facility.

• A Salt Lake County woman, older than 85, who was in living in a long-term care facility.

• A Utah County man, older than 85, who was hospitalized when he died.

Though nine new deaths were reported, the state’s toll rose only by eight, because an earlier case was removed from the list pending further investigation, Dunn said.

Utah’s death toll from COVID-19 reached 100 people May 27. The tally hit 200 on July 8, 42 days later. Thursday’s announcement of 300 deaths comes 22 days after the toll reached 200.

UDOH reported that 217 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. Since the pandemic began, 2,346 people have been hospitalized.

The level of hospitalizations, a lagging indicator, is still fairly flat, Stenehjem said in the Intermountain video chat. “We’re still seeing hospitalization from that peak we had seven to 10 days ago,” he said. “We still have lots of people in the hospital, lots of people that are really sick in the hospital.”

But with cases, he added, “we can definitively say the trend is finally stabilized, and now in many place we’re seeing a decrease in case counts.”

Meanwhile, testing patterns “are staying relatively similar,” so the drop in cases isn’t just a matter of fewer people being tested, Stenehjem said. “It means that something’s working.”

Another 6,176 people were tested for COVID-19 from the previous day, UDOH reported Thursday. The rolling seven-day average of positive lab results is at 9.6%.

Also Thursday, Herbert approved a request from Logan’s mayor, Holly Daines, to mandate mask wearing in that northern Utah city.

Daines sent a letter to Herbert, through the Bear River Health District, on July 23, seeking the mask order. She said at the time that her intent was to duplicate mask rules already in place at Utah State University, one of Logan’s largest employers.

Logan joins a growing list of Utah communities that have received Herbert’s approval for a mask mandate. Also on that list: Salt Lake, Summit and Grand counties and Springdale, outside Zion National Park. Herbert has also issued orders requiring masks in K-12 schools, and in state-run buildings (including universities and liquor stores).

At the state’s news conference, Herbert announced that Jefferson Burton, the retired Utah National Guard commander who has been the acting director of the Utah Department of Health, will leave UDOH on Friday.

He will return to his job at the Central Utah Veterans Home in Payson. Burton is also running for a seat in the Utah House, representing southern Utah County.

Rich Saunders, UDOH’s chief deputy, will assume Burton’s acting role, starting Monday.