Coronavirus in Utah: The infection rate starts to decline, but cases are no longer going down

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Granite School District communications director Ben Horsley overlooks PPE inventory being prepared to ship to schools for the start of classes next week from the Granite School District Warehouse on Tuesday, August 18, 2020.

Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing free access to critical stories about the coronavirus. Sign up for our Top Stories newsletter, sent to your inbox every weekday morning. To support journalism like this, please donate or become a subscriber.

The Utah Department of Health on Sunday reported a seven-day average of 349 positive COVID-19 cases per day. The new statistics culminated a week in Utah that saw fluctuating coronavirus case counts while debates about mask wearing continued throughout the state.

The state health department also reported 301 new coronavirus infections Sunday to end a week where cases stopped declining like they had been earlier in the month. The rolling seven-day average continued to be well below 400 new cases per day for a second straight week. The figure is what Gov. Gary Herbert said he wants the state to reach by Sept. 1.

Utah’s total death toll held at 385 on Sunday, while the week’s tally ended at 23 deaths. The health department reported no new deaths on Sunday, which appears to be a reporting trend. No new deaths were reported last Sunday, and just one death was reported each of the last two Sundays.

There are 138 people currently hospitalized with COVID-19, per the health department.

The beginning of the week saw some of the lowest case numbers in months. The 242 reported Monday was the smallest increase since June. But two consecutive days later in the week saw case numbers above 450.

Still, the positive rate of infection continued to decline. The week’s seven-day rolling average started at 9.6% and dropped to 8.4% by Sunday.

Daily cases vacillated during a week in which wearing masks was an issue in various parts of the state. Salt Lake County extended its mask mandate through the end of 2020, with Mayor Jenny Wilson saying that although cases have fallen, she was concerned about potential spikes with Labor Day and the school year approaching.

Meanwhile in Logan, the municipal council opted to let its mask mandate expire on Aug. 30 and replace it with a resolution aimed to educate residents on the benefits of mask wearing. Aug. 30 is also when the city’s state of emergency order ends.

Even Week 2 of high school football couldn’t escape the mask debate. Thursday’s game between American Fork and Timpview was momentarily halted by the home team’s athletic director to enforce Alpine School District’s edict that masks must be worn during football games.

With the school year starting recently in some districts and beginning soon in others, the UDOH reported Thursday that 13 schools have seen outbreaks since the pandemic began. Parents in Orem marched Saturday in opposition to Herbert’s mask mandate at all K-12 schools in the state. Demonstrators want masks to be optional.

College students in Utah started moving into their dorms this week, and some tested positive for coronavirus in the process. And a charter school in Ogden had a student test positive, prompting letters asking some parents to quarantine their children until the end of the month.

Educators have been preparing for the return of students in various ways, including measuring the space between desks in their classrooms and doing their best to reach the recommended 6 feet of separation. In many cases, there isn’t enough space to reach that metric.