With 112 new coronavirus cases reported on campus in just three days, Brigham Young University in Provo appears to be driving a rise in cases in Utah County, which has the worst infection rates in the state.
“We’re really attributing this to ... a certain, a young adult population: 15- to 24-year-olds. It’s really both public school being back in session as well as having university students being back [in] classes as well as being back in the community and comingling together,” said Aislynn Tolman-Hill, spokeswoman for the Utah County Health Department.
Statewide, coronavirus cases spiked on Friday, with 656 new infections, the Utah Department of Health reported. But the rise may be tied to reporting delays due to Monday’s Labor Day holiday and Tuesday’s windstorm in northern Utah, health officials said.
A third of those newly reported cases were from Utah County. And BYU on Friday reported 258 cases since Aug. 28 among the 43,000 students and employees on campus for fall term. That’s up from the 146 cases the school reported on Wednesday, making it the most infected campus in Utah, and the campus with the fastest spread.
In Utah County, Tolman-Hill said, “there is kind of a — I don’t know if you want to call it a counterculture or not — that is kind of a ‘We’re back in school, end of summer, celebrate, live it up’ attitude. A ‘We’re young, we’ll be fine’ kind of thing.”
By contrast, there have been 182 cases reported since Aug. 15 at the University of Utah’s campus of 62,000; 67 cases as of Sept. 7 on Utah Valley University’s campus of about 23,000; and 96 during fall term at Utah State University, which enrolled about 28,000 students in 2019.
Meanwhile, Utah County on Friday posted its biggest single-day increase, with 219 new infections reported. For the past seven days, the county has averaged 155 new cases per day — the most of any county in the state, including Salt Lake County, which has close to twice as many people.
Provo and Orem account for the largest share of the new cases, reporting three of every five of the county’s new cases in the past three days, despite making up about a third of the county’s population, according to county health data.
Health officials acknowledged that the spread in Utah County is unique. “We’re not seeing the same numbers in other areas of the state where there are major universities,” Tolman-Hill said.
Dancing with COVID-19
Multiple cases have been linked to two businesses that organize dance parties in Utah County, Tolman-Hill said. Utah Country Dance has been hosting “Country Dance Provo” twice a week. Although Tolman-Hill said health officials had seen photos of events where people weren’t wearing masks, the venue’s manager said masks had been required since Provo implemented a mask order.
Before that, they were checking guests' temperatures at the door, said manager Miguel Guzman, who said he was surprised to learn of cases tied to the dance nights. “No one else has contacted us about it,” he said.
Meanwhile, the organization Young/Dumb has been hosting weekly dance parties that have elicited criticism on social media. After a dance party last month, the company posted video of crowds of people dancing, nary a mask in sight, with the caption: “Young/Dumb: 1 — Karens: 0.”
The group planned to host a “Mask-Querade” party Friday night in Orem, where — unlike Provo — there is no mask mandate. Nonetheless, the organization advised some sort of face covering.
“Wear a masquerade mask or decorate a safety mask,” the advertisement suggested. Traditional masquerade masks do not cover the mouth. The company’s owner did not respond to The Salt Lake Tribune’s requests for comment.
Tolman-Hill said she did not know the number of cases tied to the dance parties, but she said contact tracers have “definitively” linked multiple cases to them.
“There absolutely have been multiple cases linked to those parties — I would say clusters — which is absolutely concerning to us,” she said. “We know that there are additional people out there that have been exposed.”
As the number of infected patients age 15 to 24 has shot up about 50 percent since Sept. 1, parties in Utah County have prompted rebuke from BYU as well as the governor.
“Brigham Young University ... is taking significant efforts of mandating mask wearing on campus, yet off campus some of the students have been conducting themselves in very close quarters with no masks and no social distancing,” Gov. Gary Herbert said in a press conference this week.
BYU officials tweeted that they were "concerned w/ reports & videos circulating about off-campus activities.
“Behavior this weekend could make or break our ability to remain on campus,” school officials wrote, though they did not identify a case count that would trigger a return to online-only classes.
“There’s not a specific threshold, but rather a variety of factors that would impact the ability to maintain an on-campus experience. This includes disease prevalence on & off campus, local hospital capacity and BYU’s capacity to isolate or quarantine those living on-campus.”
Although the county’s new cases are concentrated around BYU, most of the communities in the county are posting case numbers that are higher, per population, than the state as a whole. At least 595,000 of the county’s 636,000 residents live in communities with infection rates above the statewide average of 12.4 daily new cases per 100,000 people, according to county data for the past three days.
There are 384,000 people in Utah County communities with more than 20 new cases per 100,000 residents, and 176,000 in towns with a rate of over 30 new cases per 100,000. Sewage monitoring also has detected rising levels of the virus in Payson, Spanish Fork, Springville, Orem and Lehi.
The mask debate
“Utah County is kind of where a lot of the anti-mask movements have been happening, so I think there might be kind of a culture of denial that this is a serious problem,” said Grace Brown, a BYU freshman. She was finishing her last day of quarantine in a designated “isolation dorm” on campus, after she contracted the virus during her first week at school.
BYU has quarantine space for about 5% of the 5,600 students living with roommates in dorms, said university spokeswoman Carri Jenkins.
Brown said she thought she was being careful, avoiding big parties and meeting with friends only in small groups. But the virus can cross degrees of separation quickly; Brown got tested after learning that a friend of a friend had tested positive, and a woman in her hall had gone to another party where someone else was infected.
“Even if it was just small social gatherings, that is most likely where I got it,” Brown said.
Before going into quarantine and developing a fever and aches, Brown said she noticed that students weren’t 100% diligent about mask wearing.
“In the dorm buildings, technically you’re required to wear them in the hallways and common areas, but I don’t see very many people doing that,” she said. “And in other social gatherings, I don’t see people wearing masks or social distancing.”
It is hard to move to a university as a freshman, meet people and make friends from behind a mask, Brown acknowledged — especially if you’re the only person wearing one. But now, she said, she’ll be masking up even in small groups.
“It’s not that difficult, it’s not that uncomfortable,” she said.
‘Not necessarily’ a trend
Statewide, Friday’s growth in cases “is the largest daily net increase we have reported since late July," state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said in a news release. “We are looking closely at the numbers, and want to reiterate, as we have throughout this response, that one day of data does not necessarily indicate a trend,” she said.
“... Many testing locations were closed Monday for Labor Day and Tuesday due to the windstorm," Dunn also noted. "It’s possible people who would have been tested Monday and Tuesday waited until later in the week to be tested, resulting in an increase in the number of positive cases identified today.”
For the past seven days, Utah has averaged 403 new positive test results per day, the health department said, noting that is below the previous Friday’s 409-case average.
Gov. Gary Herbert had said he wanted the state average to get below 400 new cases per day by Sept. 1, a goal Utah met in mid-August but surpassed again last week.
Utah’s death toll from the coronavirus stood at 431 on Friday, with one fatality reported since Thursday — a Salt Lake County man, older than 85, who was not hospitalized when he died.
Hospitalizations were up slightly on Friday, with 123 Utah patients concurrently admitted, UDOH reported. On average, 119 patients have been receiving treatment in Utah hospitals each day for the past week.
In total, 3,288 patients have been hospitalized in Utah for COVID-19, up 15 from Thursday.
There were 4,041 new test results reported on Friday, about on par with the weeklong average of 4,013 new tests per day. The rate of tests with positive results was at 9% on Friday, down slightly from Thursday’s 9.1%. Dunn has said a 3% positivity rate would indicate the virus is under control, but statewide, Utah’s rate of positive tests has been above 5% since May 25, according to UDOH data.
Since public schools began opening on Aug. 13, there have been 34 outbreaks in schools, affecting 156 patients, with five new outbreaks and eight new cases reported in the past day.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been 201 patients infected in 45 school outbreaks, with a median age of 17. Nine of those patients have been hospitalized; none has died.
Of 56,675 Utahns who have tested positive for COVID-19, 48,021 are considered “recovered” — that is, they have survived for at least three weeks after being diagnosed.