Utah’s new COVID-19 cases remain under 400, but high percentage of positive tests could be a ‘warning sign,’ specialist says

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign asks customers to wear masks during the current yellow (low-risk) phase of Utah's COVID-19 effort, at Wasatch Running Center in Sandy on Tuesday, June 23, 2020.

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The number of new coronavirus cases in Utah stayed under 400 on Tuesday, but the percentage of tested patients who receive positive results remains high — and that means low testing numbers could be masking the spread of the virus, according to an infectious disease specialist.

“These are warning signs that we’re not ready to relax restrictions quite as readily,” Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, chief of the infectious diseases division at University of Utah Health, said Tuesday in an online news briefing.

The Utah Department of Health reported 378 new cases on Tuesday, comparable to Monday’s increase of 354 and well below mid-July’s averages of more than 600 new cases per day. The seven-day average increase as of Tuesday was 428 cases per day.

But the number of people tested each day also has been low, and the percentage of positive results has been rising slightly; on Tuesday, the weeklong average positivity rate was 9.8%, same as Monday, and up from 9.1% about two weeks ago, when testing began to decline.

The percentage of tests that come back positive is an important metric in determining how pervasive the spread of COVID-19 is, health officials have said. State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn has said a rate of about 3% would indicate the virus is under control, and Salt Lake City schools are requiring an average of 5% or less in Salt Lake County in order to resume in-person classes.

Statewide, Utah's rate of positive tests has been above 9% since mid-June, according to state data.

But Utah’s hospitalizations were down, with 181 patients concurrently admitted as of Tuesday — a figure that had been over 200 for the past 12 days.

Utah’s death toll from the coronavirus stood at 321 on Tuesday, with seven fatalities reported since Monday, including six in Salt Lake County; all were age 65 or older.

Sunday marked the deadliest week in Utah since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, with 37 deaths in a seven-day span, breaking last week’s record of 32.

John B. Degges, who died July 29 after contracting COVID-19, was one of those patients. The 84-year-old was a resident of Capitol Hill Care Center at 76 S. 500 East in Salt Lake City, who contracted the virus there, said his granddaughter, Jackie Morgan.

(Photo courtesy of Jackie Morgan) John Degges sits aboard a train in this undated photo. Degges died July 29, 2020, in Salt Lake City after contracting COVID-19, his family says.

Capitol Hill is among the long-term care facilities currently listed by the Utah Department of Health as having an outbreak. Morgan said her family isn’t upset at Capitol Hill, saying employees there provided care for her grandfather even as the virus reduced the number of staff.

“We feel really, really grateful for the care he received in the facility,” Morgan said.

Degges worked as a Presbyterian minister in Alabama, Mississippi and Utah, and later for a Salt Lake City company making semiconductors. But his real passion wasn’t semiconductors, said his daughter Katie Ward — it was trains.

“That was one of my father’s jokes,” Ward said, “that he wanted to be a train conductor and got halfway there.”

He loved taking train across the country. Ward said Degges met her mother on a train near Boise, Idaho. Morgan said her grandfather got dressed up for every train trip.

“He put on a suit and tie,” Morgan said, “and tipped his hat to every person he met on his train trips.”

The patients whose deaths were reported Tuesday were:

  • A woman, older than 85, who lived in a long-term care facility.

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

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

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

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

  • A man, older than 85, who was not hospitalized when he died.

A Davis County woman, age 65 to 84, also died in a hospital.

In total, 2,482 patients have been hospitalized in Utah for COVID-19, up 32 from Monday.

Of 41,907 Utahns who have tested positive for COVID-19, 30,449 are considered “recovered” — that is, they have survived for at least three weeks after being diagnosed.