Coronavirus in Utah: State experiences deadliest week since start of pandemic

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kylie Archuleta and Joshua Brimhall conduct COVID-19 testing at the University of Utah Health's Farmington Health Center on Friday, July 31, 2020.

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Sunday marked the deadliest week in Utah since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in March, a milestone that comes as the number of new reported cases trended downward.

The Utah Department of Health reported one new death Sunday, bringing the week’s total to 37. That’s the highest death rate yet in a seven-day span, breaking last week’s record of 32.

The person who died was a woman between the ages of 65 and 84. She was a Davis County resident and was in a long-term care facility.

Health officials have referred to deaths as a “lagging indicator” of the pandemic’s severity because those who die from the coronavirus typically fight it for several weeks.

Salt Lake County accounted for 20 of Utah’s 37 deaths this past week but saw its seven-day rolling case average drop from 224 cases per day to 188 on Sunday.

The state heath department also reported that 203 people are currently hospitalized with the coronavirus. That is the lowest figure of the week after hospital capacity was already suffering more than it has any other week of the pandemic. The current rate of hospitalizations, as well as deaths, could be indications of Utah’s previous spikes in cases after the state saw numbers in the 700s and 800s in recent weeks.

The health department on Sunday reported 473 new cases of COVID-19 in Utah, bringing the state’s total to 41,175. Nearly 3,500 new tests were conducted.

The recent drop in cases could be correlated to a reduction of administered tests. Between July 27 and Aug. 2, a total of 31,365 tests were done. That time span saw 3,202 new cases. The week before, however, there were 42,529 tests and 3,856 positive cases.

While the initial assumption for the reduction in testing could have coincided with the Pioneer Day holiday on July 24, enough time has passed for that to no longer be the explanation.

“It appears to be that there is an actual decrease in demand for testing,” UDOH spokesperson Tom Hudachko said. “Why that is — there could be several factors for that. Certainly the testing locations have told us that they’ve seen a decrease in demand. It could be that there’s less illness out there in the community and there’s just less people seeking out testing. It’s a hard thing to put our finger on in terms of why people aren’t doing something.”

The new data came at the end of a week that saw the rolling seven-day average of new coronavirus cases dip below 500 for the first time since late June. Gov. Gary Herbert set a goal three weeks ago to get the average below that threshold by Aug. 1. Last Sunday, the seven-day average of positive tests was 541.

Despite the fluctuation and reduction in both case counts and testing, the state’s positivity rate has stayed around 10%.

Reopening schools was a topic of much debate this past week. The state’s largest teachers union protested Herbert’s edict that schools reopen all across the state because it feels it’s too dangerous for educators and students.

A day later, parents on the west side of Salt Lake City — an area with a high concentration of minority and working families — said they didn’t want schools to reopen either. As a result of rising case numbers, the city’s district school board decided to start all instruction only online, even after the start of classes was already delayed until Sept. 8.

The state health department Thursday released new guidelines concerning schools that said students directly exposed to COVID-19 could still go to school. State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn made a clarification to that Sunday on social media.

“The principles we have been recommending since the beginning of this pandemic still apply,” Dunn wrote on Twitter. “If masks/distancing don’t happen in a school, close contacts will stay home. Updated manual forthcoming.”

Correction, 2:57 p.m. • An earlier version of this story misstated the death toll for the week of July 26-Aug. 2.