Just a few weeks ago, it looked like we had beat back the spread of COVID-19.
By any standard, August was a very good month. We went from averaging more than 650 cases a day to closer to 350 at one point. It was a reprieve for doctors and health care providers, according to Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious disease specialist with Intermountain Healthcare.
Hospital occupancy dipped from more than 200 entering August to a low of 116 as the month neared its end. Most importantly, where we entered August averaging about five deaths a day, we finished the month averaging 1.3 per day.
Now, it seems, the wheels are coming off.
The case counts have shot up faster than ever and are nearing the peaks we saw in July, our daily average shooting up from 381 cases per day just five days ago to 522 as of Tuesday. That figure certainly understates the amount of the coronavirus in our communities, since testing has actually been going down and the positive test rate has climbed to 13.7% over the past five days.
Here’s more crappy news: The state’s sewage monitoring is detecting increased levels of the virus in 23 of the 41 monitoring stations statewide, in some instances, like in Provo, at alarming levels.
We knew cases would go up when schools and universities reopened and so far it is young people — in the 15-24 age group — who are driving the spread. In the past five days, they have accounted for 42% of total cases in the state, compared to the 25% of cases they had accounted for since the start of the pandemic.
The thinnest of silver linings is that those people are generally healthier and less likely to have severe cases, which is why our hospital occupancy has remained low.
But even though young people don’t often die from the illness, a growing body of studies show they may have long-term and even lifelong damage — heart, brain and lung damage has been detected months after symptoms subside.
A study of college football players found better than one in seven who had beaten COVID later were found to have myocarditis, heart inflammation that can lead to cardiac arrest.
Other patients have had blood clot issues and strokes, suffered from fatigue or mood disorders. And then there are the potential surprises we don’t even know about yet.
But it’s also unlikely that the virus can be contained on the college campuses.
“From a health care network standpoint, what I’m looking at is, OK, these 15-to-24-year-olds are infected. Now they’re going to go home and infect their parents and grandparents,” who won’t fare as well, Stenehjem said. “We’re not going to see that effect for two or three weeks, but that’s obviously a major concern of ours.”
What’s most troubling to me is that too many young people don’t get that or else they just don’t care.
You probably saw the video of hundreds of students at a Utah County party even as record cases are being reported and per capita rates have doubled in two weeks. Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist, singled out that sort of behavior as jeopardizing in-person schooling and Brigham Young University reiterated that ignoring safety rules will not be tolerated.
The party promoter, Kwaku El, founder of the aptly named Young/Dumb, doesn’t care. He’s not going to stop holding events and contends it’s time to stop social distancing and wearing masks. Just get back to normal.
It’s the same rhetoric at the anti-mask rallies, like the ABC 4 report from the St. George that quoted one woman comparing having to wear a mask to George Floyd having a police officer kneel on the back of his neck until he died. Another woman parroted the conspiracy theory that child molesters “love” masks.
I listened to one recent anti-mask rally in Utah County and the speakers encouraged people to arm themselves to resist the government. Another called masks “witchcraft” and a “Luciferian agenda.”
(I reached out to Lucifer for a response, but the Dark Lord has been busy this year and didn’t get back to me.)
And before Salt Lake County gets too smug, we have our share of reckless, selfish behavior, too.
In early August, I tweeted video of Echo, a Salt Lake City club that was packed with people not wearing masks. The bar told the county health department it was old pre-pandemic video, even though its own Instagram page had similar shots.
On Sept. 4, the county sent a warning letter to two bars, Echo and Ibiza, warning them that if they don’t comply with regulations they will be shut down. Then last weekend, I got video of Echo, once again packed with a girl shouting “I’m going to get COVID for sure.”
On some level, I get it. Six months of this pandemic has taken a toll on us all. It’s exhausting to the point that many, it seems, are so desperate for some normalcy they’ve stopped caring about anyone else.
These next few weeks could get a little rough. Now is the time we need to think of other people, those parents and grandparents or our friends and neighbors with conditions that put them at risk, and put our own fatigue aside and make those minor sacrifices — avoiding crowds, wearing the masks and (this one is really important) getting a flu shot as soon as you can.
Government rules and enforcement can’t solve this problem. We need compassion more than compulsion, because what the past six months have taught us is that uniting as a community and doing our part is the most effective way to keep this virus in check.