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.
College students, particularly in Utah County, keep partying, and the state’s COVID-19 cases keep rising.
The number of new COVID-19 cases in Utah remained high Sunday, with 628 reported by the state Department of Health. That number, combined with 656 cases Friday and 572 on Saturday, is the largest three-day jump in cases since mid-July.
The surge has been particularly pronounced among Utahns 15 to 24 years old. People in that age group now make up 25% of cases, the second highest number behind people ages 25 to 44 (37%).
Health officials on Friday said the Labor Day holiday and a historic windstorm may have created a surge in testing later in the week, leading to the initial spike in cases. With elevated numbers continuing through the weekend, though, it has become increasingly clear the uptick is driven by Utah’s biggest counties and their college-age population.
Tom Hudachko, a health department spokesperson, cautioned, however, that it’s too early to say with certainty what is causing the outbreaks within those groups.
“You could have predicted that [as] schools come back again and return to campuses and whatnot that you would see additional cases. But certainly we want to limit it to what’s manageable,” he said. “We definitely want to be moving in the other direction, but I think we need a little more time to let numbers play out and determine whether it’s a long-term increase or a bit of a blip on the map.”
Utah County is now seeing more coronavirus cases than anywhere else in the state and set a one-day record Sunday with 304. Last week, it reported 1,350 new cases for an average of 191 per day.
The county is home to the state’s two largest universities: Utah Valley University in Orem, which has an enrollment of approximately 37,000 students and began classes Aug. 19; and Brigham Young University, which enrolls 33,500 and started Tuesday.
UVU has reported 150 cases among staff and students. BYU, meanwhile, 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 Wednesday, making it the most infected campus in Utah and the one with the fastest spread. An outbreak among the football team forced the Cougars to postpone next Saturday’s game against Army.
Salt Lake County is also seeing a bit of an uptick. On Sunday, it reported 200 new cases and a rolling seven-day average of 154.29. That’s an increase of just 1.3 over the previous week but far from its all-time average high of 301.57, which it hit July 13.
The University of Utah, the state’s third-largest school with an enrollment of 32,700, reported 182 cases Friday, up 16 from Wednesday. Classes began Aug. 19.
As cases are surging, so are social-media videos of college-age people attending packed dance parties. Several of the parties take place in Provo and Orem and often the attendants are not wearing masks.
And at least one party promoter, Young/Dumb co-founder Kwaku El, said he plans to keep the gatherings going and shun city and state regulations regarding social distancing and the wearing of masks. Mask mandates are in effect in Provo and Salt Lake City.
“The thing about events is that you know who’s on your side based on who shows up,” El said in an Instagram video he posted Saturday afternoon. “If you have a two-person parade, it’s not a cause that anyone cares about. But if you have 800 people at a party, you know that there are 800 people that do not subscribe to the current narrative that social distancing and masks are the most important thing right now.”
El said he believes shutting down businesses will cause more harm and more death than COVID-19 in the long run because people will lose their employment and possibly their homes.
El indicated he had received messages from some college students asking him to stop throwing parties to slow coronavirus outbreaks so they can continue to take classes on campus rather than online. He said if that is a person’s chief concern, “It’s probably because you’re a privileged white person and you just want to be on campus.
“The carnage left from this recession will be worse than COVID-19,” he added. “I wager that more people will die from a recession than from COVID-19.”
Hudachko, state public health leaders and Gov. Gary Herbert say they are not arguing to shut down businesses.
On Thursday, state leaders unveiled an accountability plan that focuses both on lowering coronavirus case numbers and maintaining a robust economy. Called the Utah Leads Together Accountability Framework, it sets the economic goals of restoring consumer confidence to pre-pandemic levels, reducing unemployment claims to less than 50,000 a week and 4.5% overall and boosting job training. At the same time, the state will be working toward keeping case numbers below 400, the intensive care unit capacity under 85% and the death rate below 1%.
“We would certainly encourage everyone to be responsible,” Hudachko said Sunday. “You can certainly get together and socialize and do so safely. You know, wear a mask and try to maintain social distance, especially when you’re in an indoor setting. People who are hosting events in indoor settings should do what they can to limit the occupancy so people can maintain a physical distance.
“We were definitely moving in the right direction the last week of July through August and the first week of September. We know that these [precautions] work. We know that if we continue to do them we’ll continue to move into the right direction.”
The state reported no new deaths Sunday. Eleven people died over the past week, half as many as two weeks ago. The current death toll in the state is 433, and currently less than 1% of people in Utah who contract the virus die from it.
In addition, the percentage of people in the state with COVID-19 who have been hospitalized is at an all-time low of 5.75%. However, the number of people currently hospitalized increased by nine from Saturday to Sunday, rising to 129. The most hospitalized at any one time was 209 on July 11.
This past week, the state announced 12 more school outbreaks and 52 cases related to outbreaks at schools. In reaction to one such outbreak, Corner Canyon High School, in Draper, is modifying its school schedule this week.