Utah’s new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations continue to decline

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A health care worker performs COVID-19 testing at a drive-thru at the Redwood Health Center in Salt Lake City, on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020.

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As demand for coronavirus tests in Utah continues to decline, the state’s testing capacity is higher than ever — at 9,000 tests per day, state officials said.

“We’ve given them a broader green light to go out and do more testing, set up additional events,” Nate Checketts, director of testing for the Utah Department of Health (UDOH), said of the state’s mobile testing teams.

But even with more asymptomatic testing in targeted communities, Utah’s new cases continue to decline, staying below the governor’s target weeklong rate of 400 diagnoses per day.

UDOH reported two new deaths and 334 new cases in Utah on Thursday.

For the past seven days, Utah has averaged 354 new confirmed cases per day, UDOH reported. Gov. Gary Herbert had said he wanted the state to get below 400 new cases per day by Sept. 1 — a target that Utah beat Tuesday, according to UDOH data.

The rate of tests with positive results was at 8.6% on Thursday, continuing a decline that began late last week. State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn has said a 3% positivity rate would indicate the virus is under control. Statewide, Utah’s rate of positive tests has been above 5% since May 25, according to UDOH data.

Despite the declines, Herbert at a Thursday news conference cautioned Utahns to stay vigilant.

“The case numbers are falling, and our transmission rates are going down,” Herbert said. “This is no time to be complacent. If anything, we need to increase our efforts. ... We need to continue this effort, so we can, in fact, get on top of this pandemic.”

But the state, its school districts and its schools have comprehensive and flexible plans in place that support welcoming students back, he said.

“Students want to be back in school. Parents want them to go back. Teachers want to be back in schools, teaching,” Herbert said. He cited recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics, that set the goal “of having students physically present in school.”

There’s no way “to absolutely have zero risk,” Herbert said. “All the plans have a plan B to it,” to cover distance learning if an outbreak erupts. “It’s like anything else — you don’t know until you try.”

Herbert said UDOH will meet with the Utah High School Activities Association, to discuss COVID-19 policies covering school sports teams. “I love high school sports,” Herbert said, “but we want to make sure we do it in such a way that it’s safe.”

There were 3,447 new test results reported on Thursday, below the seven-day average of 4,525 new tests per day. Low testing demand has persisted in Utah since late July; in mid-July, the state was reporting more than 7,000 new test results per day, on average.

Testing centers have reported a reduction in demand for testing, of between 20% and 30%, Checketts said. “Our best information seems to be there is less prevalence of the disease in the state, and less demand [for testing] because of that,” Checketts said.

He reiterated that anyone who has symptoms of COVID-19 should get tested. There are six main symptoms: fever, cough, sore throat, shortness of breath, muscle aches or pains, and reduce sense of smell or taste. Anyone who has been in contact with somebody who has contracted COVID-19 also should get tested, Checketts said.

“We have made tremendous efforts to get us where we are today,” with the state’s current capacity for testing, Checketts said. Until there’s a vaccine, though, the state is bringing in more personnel and equipment, to triple the capacity for testing during the fall, when flu season begins, he said.

The state and private health care providers also are trying to acquire machines to perform more antigen tests, which detect proteins on the surface of the virus. Antigen tests aren’t as accurate as the more typical PCR tests, which detect the virus’ genetic material, but they can provide results in about 15 minutes, Checketts said.

Hospitalizations were down slightly Thursday, with 184 Utah patients concurrently admitted, UDOH reported. On average, 194 patients have been receiving treatment in Utah hospitals each day for the past week — up slightly from the beginning of this week, but below the peak average of 211 patients hospitalized two weeks ago.

Dr. Mark Briesacher, chief physician executive of Intermountain Healthcare, urged Utahns to continue to seek care for chronic conditions, schedule preventive screenings, and to not delay care for illnesses. Doctors’ visits and procedures have been down both at Intermountain and at University of Utah Health, which has lost about $55 million in reduced surgeries and other services this year as a result of the virus, hospital officials said this week.

“It’s important to know that our hospitals and clinics are safe, and are ready for any health care need that you have,” Briesacher said. “It’s really important that you don’t delay care. It’s important for your health, and important for the community’s health.”

Briesacher praised the way Utahns have taken on the behaviors of wearing masks, washing hands and distancing from other people. “Our efforts together, as a community, are making a difference,” he said.

Herbert noted his mask order, which requires students and adults to wear masks inside schools, “allows for clear face shields for extra — and I stress extra — protection,” but added that they should be worn with masks in most instances. “A shield alone is not preferable,” he said.

He put some responsibility for safety in schools on parents. “Parents have got to teach their young people that they’ve got to wear their masks,” Herbert said.

In total, 2,721 patients have been hospitalized in Utah for COVID-19, up 25 from Wednesday.

Utah’s death toll from the coronavirus stood at 353 on Thursday, with two fatalities reported since Wednesday, both in Salt Lake County:

  • A man, age 65 to 84, who was not hospitalized when he died.

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

Of 45,424 Utahns who have tested positive for COVID-19, 35,817 are considered “recovered” — that is, they have survived for at least three weeks after being diagnosed.

Absent from Thursday’s media briefing was the state’s epidemiologist, Dr. Angela Dunn. Herbert said Dunn is on vacation. He complimented her work during the pandemic, and said “she deserves a little time off.”