Utah County behind ‘clear’ spike in coronavirus cases, state health officials say

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pedestrians exit a bus in downtown Provo on Friday, Sept. 11, 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.

College students in Utah County are driving a spike in new coronavirus cases that is now “clear” after several days of rising numbers, state health officials said Monday.

“We are experiencing a clear upward trend in case counts right now,” Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist, wrote in a news statement. “This trend is being driven, in large part, by an increase in cases among college-aged young adults in Utah County.”

With 563 new coronavirus cases reported Monday, Utah’s rate of new diagnoses stayed above the governor’s target of fewer than 400 cases per day.

For the past seven days, Utah has averaged 487 new positive test results per day, the Utah Department of Health reported Monday. Gov. Gary Herbert had said he wanted the state to get below 400 new cases per day by Sept. 1, a goal Utah met in mid-August but surpassed again Sept. 3.

The virus continued to spread most quickly in Utah County, which recorded 210 new cases Monday. For the past seven days, Utah County has averaged more than 31 new cases a day per 100,000 people, more than double the state average of 15 new daily cases per 100,000 and Salt Lake County’s average of 14.7.

“Since last Friday, 39% of all new cases have come from Utah County, this despite the fact that Utah County’s population represents 20% of the state’s population," Dunn wrote. “Most of these cases are among 14- to 24-year-olds, and the majority of those are among college-aged young adults.”

Students at Brigham Young University, in particular, have faced criticism for large, off-campus parties since the fall term began.

“I’m not going to stop,” Kwaku El, a BYU senior and founder of the events company Young/Dumb, wrote in an Instagram post. Videos of his parties this month show hundreds of people dancing in crowds, overwhelmingly without masks.

El has said on Instagram that he believes flouting social distancing recommendations will save the economy.

But the virus is spreading rapidly among students there. As of Friday, BYU reported 258 new cases this term in its campus community of 43,000. By contrast, the University of Utah on Monday tallied 195 cases since Aug. 15 among 62,000 on campus; Utah State University reported 122 cases among about 31,000 students and employees at its campuses statewide; and Utah Valley University reported 115 fall cases on its campus of 23,000.

Brigham Young University has “imposed disciplinary measures” on 15 students who violated the school’s COVID-19 prevention rules, which include wearing masks in certain situations, physical distancing and washing hands.

“BYU stands behind our warning that if someone chooses not to follow BYU’s safety requirements, on-campus privileges will be restricted," wrote BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins. "BYU has imposed disciplinary measures for 15 students who refused to follow these requirements. These measures include suspension or restrictions from on-campus participation, such as classes, work or in-person campus services.”

The school has disciplined students for both on- and off-campus behavior that “may substantially impact our campus community” by exposing people to the virus, Jenkins said.

“Colleges across the state, and specifically in Utah County, have acted proactively to implement solid prevention measures on their campuses. They need help from their students to act responsibly while off campus,” Dunn wrote. “What students do off campus has a direct impact on a school’s ability to safely operate their campus.”

Cases also are rising at UVU, though not as rapidly; in the past week, 45 students and three employees reported testing positive, said university spokesman Scott Trotter.

As of Monday, four courses had moved online after a threshold number of cases was met — two to four cases, depending on the class size — and another was temporarily moved to live-streaming as students quarantined, Trotter said.

Utah County is at the “yellow,” or low, restriction level per state guidelines. Provo’s City Council implemented a mask requirement for public places where social distancing is not feasible. Mayor Michelle Kaufusi, who opposed the rule, could not be reached immediately for inquiries as to whether the city might pursue more enforcement of the mask requirement now that infection numbers are rising.

Utah’s death toll from the coronavirus stood at 436 on Monday, with three fatalities reported since Sunday:

  • A Duchesne County man, age 65 to 84, who was not hospitalized when he died.

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

  • A Utah County man, age 25 to 44, who died in a hospital.

The death in Duchesne County was the county’s first fatality to COVID-19.

Hospitalizations were rising Monday, with 134 Utah patients concurrently admitted, UDOH reported. On average, 122 patients have been receiving treatment in Utah hospitals each day for the past week — up slightly from last week, but below the peak average of 211 patients hospitalized each day at the end of July

In total, 3,338 patients have been hospitalized in Utah for COVID-19, up 12 from Sunday.

The rate of tests with positive results was at 9.8% on Monday, up from Sunday’s 9.3%. Dunn has said a 3% positivity rate would indicate the virus is under control.

Statewide, Utah’s rate of positive tests has been above 5% since May 25, according to UDOH data.

There were 4,809 new test results reported Monday, above the weeklong average of 4,277 new tests per day. Testing demand remains far below mid-July, when the state was reporting more than 7,000 new test results per day, on average.

Since public schools began opening Aug. 13, there have been 45 outbreaks in schools, affecting 215 patients, with six new outbreaks and 36 new cases reported in the past day — the largest rise yet in school-related cases in a single day.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been 260 patients infected in 56 school outbreaks, with a median age of 17. Nine of those patients have been hospitalized; none has died.

Meanwhile, four administrators at Roy High School are under quarantine after one tested positive for COVID-19, apparently contracting it outside of the school, Weber School District reported Monday.

The number of younger patients with the coronavirus continues to rise precipitously. Four in every 1,000 Utahns age 15 to 24 are contracting the virus every day, according to the latest weeklong averages.

Of 58,438 Utahns who have tested positive for COVID-19, 48,934 are considered “recovered” — that is, they have survived for at least three weeks after being diagnosed.