As Utah tops 500 new COVID-19 cases, officials defend state policies for testing and for reporting deaths

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As the daily number of new COVID-19 cases in Utah topped 500 for the first time in nearly a month, Utah health officials pushed back against their federal counterparts on who should get tested and a false rumor about how deaths from the virus are counted.

Another 504 Utahns tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the Utah Department of Health’s daily report Thursday, with the rolling seven-day average of new positive cases rising to 394 a day.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert had said he wanted the state to get below 400 new cases per day by Sept. 1 — a goal that was met weeks ago, but may be reversed if diagnoses continue to rise.

The rate of tests with positive results was at 9.4% on Thursday, up from Wednesday’s 9.1%.

The state has been seeing “a modest increase, and we’re not seeing anything specific — with specific age groups or specific settings — causing this increase” in positive test results, state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said at the state’s weekly media briefing Thursday.

Dunn said the state will still encourage people who don’t show symptoms of COVID-19 to get tested under certain circumstances, pushing back against a new recommendation from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that only people who are symptomatic get tested.

Utah has been recommending testing for first responders exposed to COVID-19, health care workers in high-risk situations, close contacts of those who are ill and people identified during outbreak investigations as having been exposed, Dunn said.

“Here in Utah, we’re really fortunate to have robust testing capacity,” Dunn said Thursday.

Herbert added that, based on recent conversations with federal officials, Utah may soon be receiving funding for rapid-result antigen testing, which can produce results in as little as 15 minutes.

There were 5,234 new test results reported on Thursday, above the weeklong average of 4,414 new tests per day.

Testing demand has been rising in the past week but remains well below the peak this summer, state officials and hospital administrators have said; In mid-July, the state was reporting more than 7,000 new test results per day, on average.

Utah’s death toll from the coronavirus rose to 414 on Thursday, with four fatalities reported since Wednesday:

  • Two Salt Lake City men, ages 45 to 64, who died in a hospital.

  • A Salt Lake City man, older than 85, who died in a hospital.

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

The process for determining whether a patient died from COVID-19 is a thorough one, said Dr. Erik Christensen, the state’s medical examiner.

Investigators in the medical examiner’s office look at the person’s medical history, both recent and long-term issues, as well as medical records and sometimes interviews with family members and physicians. For each of the 414 deaths from COVID-19 in Utah, so far, Christensen’s office has verified that the person tested positive for the virus.

In rare instances, about 1% of the cases, Christensen said, “the initial story you get doesn’t always turn out to be what you thought it was.” In those cases, his office will change a death certificate to certify the correct cause of death.

“We’re confident in the numbers being reported,” Christensen said.

The topic came up again this week when the CDC reported that in 6% of the deaths it had tallied, “COVID-19 was the only cause mentioned” on the deceased person’s death certificate. The rest had COVID-19 as the official cause of death, but also listed other health conditions as contributing factors.

This statistic prompted a conspiracy theorist to post a tweet saying only 6% of all the Americans who reportedly died of COVID-19 actually did. Twitter removed the tweet Sunday as a false claim, but not before President Donald Trump retweeted it. (As of Thursday, more than 186,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, according to the case tracker managed by Johns Hopkins University.)

Herbert, when asked about reports that the CDC has told states to be ready to start distributing a COVID-19 vaccine as early as Nov. 1, said, “Our folks will do what we can to be prepared,” adding about a vaccine: “We hope that’s not just overly [optimistic.]”

Dunn said state health officials have been getting ready to distribute a vaccine, whenever it’s ready, for months. “That was already on our planning list: When we do get a vaccine, how do we distribute it effectively?” Dunn said.

The timeline — the date the CDC cited is two days before Election Day — has raised concerns that a vaccine approval may be driven by political considerations rather than science. “I certainly am not surprised about the criticism,” Herbert said, noting much about the pandemic has become politicized.

Before Thursday, the last time the state reported more than 500 new cases in a day was Aug. 6 — not counting an Aug. 14 report that UDOH officials said was artificially high because one lab that processes tests had delayed reporting its results.

(Laura Seitz | Deseret News, via pool) Erik Christensen, chief medical examiner for the Utah Department of Health, left, listens as Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, speaks at the state of Utah's weekly COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020.

Herbert also said he would approve a request from Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall to let Utah’s capital city move its restriction level from “orange” to “yellow,” which will be effective Friday. That doesn’t mean, he added, that the fight against the virus is over.

“It means less restrictions, not less risk,” Herbert said, adding that people in businesses should continue to practice social distancing and wear face masks.

Mendenhall, in announcing the move to the “yellow” category, cited a general decline in cases. She also noted that case counts in two of the most heavily affected ZIP codes in the city — 84104 and 84116, both on the city’s west side — “have each seen an overall trend of stabilization or reduction in the past 30 days.”

According to the Salt Lake County Health Department’s dashboard, those two ZIP codes averaged, respectively, 4 and 6.7 cases per day this last week — compared with seven-day averages of 5.9 and 11.6 cases per day a month before.

Dunn has said a 3% positivity rate would indicate the virus is under control. Statewide, Utah’s rate of positive tests have been above 5% since May 25, according to UDOH data.

This week, University of Utah Health started administering saliva-based tests at its four drive-up testing locations. A recent study found the saliva test just as effective as the more-invasive swabs that go up one’s nose.

Statewide, there were 120 patients concurrently hospitalized as of Thursday, UDOH reported. On average, 122 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 each day at the end of July.

In total, 3,153 patients have been hospitalized in Utah for COVID-19, up 19 from Wednesday.

Of 53,326 Utahns who have tested positive for COVID-19, 44,995 are considered “recovered” — that is, they have survived for at least three weeks after being diagnosed.