Utah tops 50,000 COVID-19 cases and 400 deaths as governor points to decline in hospitalizations

(Steve Griffin | Deseret News, pool) Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, listens to Gov. Gary Herbert as he speaks during the weekly COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020.

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The number of Utahns infected with the coronavirus has crossed the 50,000 mark — more people than could fit in a sold-out University of Utah football game — and the state’s death toll now exceeds 400.

The state passed those grim milestones, according to the Utah Department of Health’s daily report on Wednesday, which showed another 407 Utahns have also tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total to 50,174. And the state reported four more Utahns have died, upping the death toll to 401 people.

This didn’t stop Gov. Gary Herbert from declaring his optimism Wednesday, saying “Utah is moving in the right direction.” The number of Utahns hospitalized with COVID-19, for instance, reached its lowest number since June 7.

It bodes especially well, the governor said, with schools reopening across the state.

Some of the state’s COVID-19 cases have come from K-12 schools but, so far, not a large number. As of Wednesday, there have been 17 school outbreaks that have resulted in 91 cases. That case count is up one from the previous day. And five people whose infections were traced to schools have been hospitalized since the pandemic began in March.

So far, though, no schools have had to shut down again. And the governor said that if students and staff follow precautions — including his K-12 mask mandate — he believes that may not need to happen; he had earlier encouraged all districts to offer some in-person options for kids to return.

“We want students to have the best experience possible under these difficult circumstances,” Herbert said.

Three students from Enterprise High School, in southern Utah’s Washington County, joined the governor‘s virtual news conference. Many parents in that largely conservative part of the state have been vocal against the mask mandate, saying it steps on their freedoms and shouldn’t be required. Some have pulled their kids out of school over it. They had planned a no-mask protest for Monday to demand it be repealed.

After pushback from the students at Enterprise, though, the anti-mask protest was canceled.

Dallee Cobb, a senior and a cheerleader at the school, had addressed families during a football game Friday before the planned rally. In her speech, a recording of which has since gone viral, Cobb begs the crowd to wear masks so that she and her peers can continue going to school in person instead of online.

“We of all people know that wearing a mask is not fun,” Cobb said at the game. “Neither is wearing a seat belt or a life jacket or pads for football, but we do all these things so we have a future. … We ask that you put your mask on so we can get our game on.”

On Wednesday, with the governor, Cobb was joined by two classmates, Dawson Thelin and Broc Gardner. They also have pushed back against parents fighting masks in schools, mainly in social media posts. The three sat together in face coverings, saying they were glad, as Cobb put it, to “finally be a part of the conversation.”

“We want to be here,” Cobb said. “We want to stay in school.”

Thelin added that he has missed being around his friends and playing sports. Masks, he said, are the way that he can do that for his final year of high school. “Yes, it’s something that’s not fun to do, but it’s not that hard,” he said. “It’s better than being stuck at home.”

Herbert said the students were “wise beyond their years” and applauded them for wearing masks — especially in the 110-degree temperatures in Washington County. “If they can do it there,” he added, “we can do it anywhere.”

(Screenshot) Enterprise High students Broc Gardner and Dallee Cobb speak during the governor's news conference on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020.

Those who refuse to wear a mask in school under his mandate can be charged with a misdemeanor. On Wednesday, the governor said he doesn’t plan to change that or make any exceptions.

“If it ain’t broke,” he said, “don’t fix it.”

Tami Pyfer, the governor’s education adviser, said during Wednesday’s news conference that 40 of Utah’s 41 school districts are now open. (The last one, Salt Lake City School District, will start entirely online Sept. 8.) Welcoming students back, she acknowledged, “hasn’t been without challenges.”

The biggest concern moving forward, Pyfer and Herbert said, will be keeping everyone safe, particularly teachers. Educators are considered more vulnerable for serious complications from the virus because of their age or health conditions. They encouraged students to wear masks, in part, to protect their teachers.

The state also plans to update its public reporting of coronavirus cases to include a breakdown of what schools and districts are seeing cases. If a school has a positive case, a contact tracer from the health department will come in and determine who may need to quarantine.

Under the guidance from the Utah Health Department, a classroom should go online only after three connected cases. And a whole school should go remote after 15 cases, or 10% of their population, is infected.

There have been no deaths reported in the first few weeks of school from the virus, though the numbers of Utah who have died from COVID-19 continues to climb across the state.

In Wednesday’s numbers, one of the four Utahns who died was a Davis County man, between age 25 and 44. Officials did not know whether the man was hospitalized or in a long-term care facility.

The other three — a Salt Lake County man between 60 and 84, a Utah County man between 45 and 64, and a Wasatch County man older than 85 — were all residents of long-term care facilities.

The state’s rolling seven-day average for new cases — the metric public health officials use to gauge trends — is at 376 cases per day. The average for the seven days before that was 347 per day.

Another 6,730 tests for the virus were processed in the past 24 hours, the department reported. The rolling seven-day rate of positive test results is at 8.6%.

Wednesday’s testing number is well above the rolling seven-day average of 3,852. The health department said it had resolved a reporting delay from one lab, which led to artificially low daily test numbers and an artificially high positive rate.

Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist, has said a 3% positivity rate would indicate the virus is under control.

That 3% rate “isn’t some magic number,” Dunn said Wednesday, at the state’s weekly COVID-19 media briefing. She noted that the rate was hovering around 10% at the beginning of August, and “we’re heading in the right direction.”

Herbert agreed with that sentiment but added, “it doesn’t mean we’re perfect. It doesn’t mean we’ve reached the finish line.”

He reiterated that if anyone is feeling one of the symptoms of COVID-19, “it probably would be wise to get tested, if only to get peace of mind.”

Dunn repeated the call to “stay committed to doing what we know works” — wearing masks, washing hands frequently, and maintaining social distancing in public spaces.

There are 118 COVID-19 patients currently in Utah hospitals — the lowest that number has been since June 7 — and 27 new hospitalizations were reported in the previous day. A total of 2,996 Utahns have been hospitalized since the pandemic began.

The milestone of 50,000 cases in Utah is the equivalent to the entire population of Murray or Draper. It’s 4,000 more than the current capacity of Rice-Eccles Stadium, where the University of Utah football team plays.

The death toll’s rise slowed a bit in August, compared with July. Utah recorded its first death from COVID-19 on March 22; the 100th death was reached 65 days later, on May 26; and the state reported the 200th death on July 8, 43 days later. It took only 22 days from then for the death toll to reach 300, on July 30, but 27 more days — from July 30 to Wednesday — to cross the 400 mark.

Help The Tribune tell the stories of Utahns who have died from COVID-19

Most of the Utahns who have died from COVID-19 have done so in anonymity. Health departments do not release their names because of patient privacy laws. When families publish obituaries online or in newspapers, only a few mention COVID-19 as a cause of death.

The Salt Lake Tribune knows the identities of only a fraction of the Utahns who have died from the coronavirus. The rest are known only by those close to them. With their help, The Tribune would like to tell their stories.

We are asking families, friends and loved ones to help us identify every Utahn who has died from the coronavirus.

Please email information and photos to The Tribune at coronavirus@sltrib.com.

Help us turn statistics into stories, to focus not on numbers but on the Utahns we have lost.


Ayuda El Tribune a contar las historias de Utahns quienes han muerto de COVID-19

La mayoria de Utahns que han muerto de COVID-19 han muerto anonimos. Los departamentos de salud no publican los nombres porque hay leyes de privacía para los pacientes. Cuando las familias publican obituarios sobre el internet o en los periódicos, pocos mencionan a COVID-19 como la causa de muerte.

El Salt Lake Tribune solo conoce pocas de las identidades de Utahns que han muerto a causa de la coronavirus. La identidad de los demás muertos solo es conocida por por sus familiares. Con la ayuda ustedes, El Tribune quiere contar las historias de estos muertos.

Estamos pidiéndoles a las familias o a los amigos que nos ayuden a identificar a cada Utahn que ha muerto de la coronavirus.

Por favor manden un email con información y fotos a El Tribune a coronavirus@sltrib.com.

Ayúdenos a transformar estadísticas a historias, para enfocarnos no en números sino en los Utahns que hemos perdido.