Utah’s rate of positive COVID-19 tests rises sharply; BYU jumps to 560 infections

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pedestrians walk down University Avenue 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.

The rate of positive COVID-19 test results in Utah rose sharply Tuesday, reaching its highest level yet — which suggests many infected people are not being tested, state health officials have said.

Meanwhile, Utah County numbers continued to climb with another massive spike at Brigham Young University, which has reported a total of 560 infections.

The percentage of positive test results statewide was at 10.6% on Tuesday, up from Monday’s 9.8%. A low percentage of positive tests indicates most infected people are being tested, along with a lot of uninfected people, state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn has explained, noting that a 3% positivity rate would indicate the virus is under control.

Utah’s rate of positive tests has been above 5% since May 25, according to Utah Department of Health data. The previous high was 10.57%, on July 19.

With 562 new coronavirus cases reported statewide Tuesday, 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 521 new positive test results per day, UDOH said. 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 this month.

The virus continued to spread quickly in Utah County, which recorded 198 new cases Tuesday — the most of any county in the state. For the past seven days, Utah County has averaged 32 new cases a day per 100,000 people, compared with averages of 16 statewide and 16 in Salt Lake County.

The rise is concentrated around Provo, home to Brigham Young University. Provo, which is under a mask order, has averaged more than 70 new daily cases per 100,000 residents; state health officials have said college-age young adults make up the bulk of the county’s recent new cases.

BYU, which has become the focus for contributing to the sharp rise in cases, initially said it would only be providing weekly updates on its total infections on campus. But, after pushback from concerned students, it changed course Tuesday.

It is now reporting 560 total since the beginning of fall semester. That’s up from 302 from the last update on Friday, when the school had 258 cases.

That’s a massive jump on the campus of 43,000 faculty and students. And it is the most infected university in Utah, with the fastest spread.

By comparison, the University of Utah has had 241 cumulative cases since Aug. 15 on its campus of 62,000 people in Salt Lake City. And nearby Utah Valley University had 198 total cases with about 23,000 on campus.

Some have pointed to off-campus parties in Utah County as a source of the increase with BYU. A group there called Young/Dumb has been hosting dances with hundreds of young adults filling the floors, according to social media videos. Meanwhile, BYU has said it has disciplined 15 students for not following its rules on masking and social distancing.

New cases also have risen sharply in northern Utah’s Bear River Health District, which includes Utah State University. The school has reported 143 new cases since fall term began, 21 of them Monday. Its seven-day average for new cases more than doubled in less than two weeks, from six a day per 100,000 residents on Sept. 2, to 14 on Tuesday.

Utah’s death toll from the coronavirus stood at 436 on Tuesday, same as Monday.

There were 128 Utah patients concurrently hospitalized, UDOH reported. On average, 124 patients have been receiving treatment in Utah hospitals each day for the past week — well below the peak average of 211 patients hospitalized each day at the end of July.

In total, 3,361 patients have been hospitalized in Utah for COVID-19, up 23 from Monday.

There were 3,930 new test results reported Tuesday, below the weeklong average of 4,324 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 47 outbreaks in schools, affecting 245 patients, with two new outbreaks and 30 new cases reported in the past day.

Cases appear to be spreading with increasing speed in Salt Lake County’s K-12 schools. In the past two weeks, 235 new cases were reported among students and employees, with 209 of those reported in the past week.

Canyons School District, where one high school is keeping its doors open during an outbreak in opposition to state guidelines, reported the most cases, with 76 new infections during the past week in a student population of about 34,000.

Jordan School District, which has about 52,000 students, reported 49 new cases. Granite School District, which enrolls about 68,000, reported 42 new cases. It has had one high school — Granger — that has had more than 15 cases, but those are not all active, so it’s not recommended that it close.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been 290 patients infected in 58 school outbreaks, with a median age of 16. Nine of those patients have been hospitalized; none has died.

Of 59,000 Utahns who have tested positive for COVID-19, 49,327 are considered “recovered” — that is, they have survived for at least three weeks after being diagnosed.